A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 53

Lilly’s eyes darted around the scene. <Fuckety…fuck…fuck…fuck!> She took in the four unconscious sheriff’s deputies and replayed their call for help.

“Destroy the damshcams and bodycams now!” She yelled to Morina and Seth.

Lilly whipped out her gun and proceeded to put several rounds through the windshield and into the dashboard. She looked back to see her two co-conspirators just standing there. “Now!” she repeated trying to instill a sense of urgency in them, because if they didn’t hurry they were fucked.

Eliminating the dashcams and bodycams robbed the responders of a teleportation location. Since they were in the middle of nowhere Louisiana, she doubted a DVA teleporter, or Hero, would have the location memorized. If she could take away their mode of transportation, then they stood a chance.

Other thoughts whirled through her head, like archived footage of the location or nearby security footage, but she pushed those thoughts aside. The live stream footage of those cops’ location was the immediate threat. It would take time for law enforcement to dig into other footage to get a good teleporting location.

Lilly went to holster her weapon and nearly dropped it and toppled to the ground as the earth roiled beneath her. A pillar of rock shot from the earth and smashed into the underside of the other patrol car’s engine block. It looked like the planet was playing a game of flip cup with the car as it was flung into the air and came back down to smash on the roof. The pillar receded, looking like it was never there in the first place, and was replaced by a wave of fire that washed over the overturned vehicle. Seth stood on the other wave of flame and calmly waved it back and forth and completely bathed the car in destruction.

“Move!” Lilly yelled again seconds before the flames reached the gas tank and ignited the fumes. The whole car went up in a fireball that lifted the vehicle a foot off the ground. <A little overkill, but that’ll do.> She smiled at her boyfriend’s destructive abilities. Then she turned to find Morina.

Morina had a tire iron from the remaining cop car’s trunk and was smashing the unconscious cops in the chest with it. Plastic and bits of electronics flew into the air as she destroyed the black, blocky bodycams on their chests, but Lilly was sure a few ribs were broken too. If not for their body armor, Morina would have beaten those cops to death.

“That’s enough!” Seth yelled as Morina moved from man to man and rained down blows. “You’ve got them.”

Morina looked up at them with a crazed look in her eyes. Sometimes, and with all they’d been through together, they forgot Morina liked inflicting pain on people. She liked draining them of their blood and bettering her own life at their expense. Lilly knew Seth might be accepting his life as an outlaw now, but she knew her boyfriend didn’t see himself as an evil, or even bad person. It was more crimes of circumstance and love that landed him in this predicament.

“Enough, Morina,” Lilly echoed Seth’s sentiments. “We need to get out of here now. We bought some time, but we aren’t out of the woods yet.” She ran back to their stolen car and got in the driver’s seat. “Let’s go!”

Her two companions rushed to follow her, but by the time their doors slammed closed, they had company. A man and a woman appeared in the road just ahead of them. They were facing the opposite direction, which allowed Lilly to act before they were all eliminated. She envisioned her teleportation location, which was exactly where she was sitting, and teleported. She disappeared and then reappeared in the exact location, but the blast of shadow that exploded outward from her was what she really needed if this what who she thought it was. She waited the second for it to expand to its full radius, and then willed it to stay. It did, and hid them from their newly-arrived enemies.

Lilly wanted to throw it in reverse and get the hell out of dodge, but Morina had a different plan. “Ram her!” The blood manipulator snarled. She was sitting between Lilly and Seth, and when Lilly didn’t automatically comply, Morina stomped Lilly’s foot into the gas.

Rubber burned for a moment before the car lurched forward. It was less than fifty feet from where they started to where the Hero stood, but the car had gotten up to a solid twenty miles per hour in the time period.

“Fucking idiot!” Lilly screamed back as she tried to move her foot, and when she realized it wasn’t possible, braced for impact. Unlike Morina, she knew who she was facing. Thankfully, they were only going twenty when they made contact.

The car impacted Reaper and got stopped dead in its tracks. The air bags deployed and smashed into Lilly’s face. Her nose broke on impact, but that was better than Morina. The girl wasn’t wearing her seat belt, or in a seat that was protected by the airbag. They flew forward into the windshield with a sickening crunch and stopped moving.

“Ugh!” Seth groaned.

A spike or worry resonated through Lilly’s gut. Seth was fragile enough as is. Getting in an accident was the last thing he needed. As it turned out, worrying about Seth was the last thing that needed to be on her mind. Her grip on the shadow was beginning to slip, and the darkness was starting to leak away. She tried to hold it, but it was like trying to hold water in her hand; bit by bit it dripped away. Soon it cleared enough to see the outline of the Heroes.

Reaper was dressed in black fatigues. The crash hadn’t affected her a bit. It hadn’t even wrinkled her clothes. The engine block had been stopped by her abdomen, and her outstretched arms had kept the car from wrapping around her. It was a smart move. She still had full momentum, and wouldn’t get tangled in the wreckage, but she didn’t move. She stared straight ahead into Lilly’s unmasked face.

<Fuck me.> Lilly saw genuine hate and anger in Reaper’s eyes, a second before Lilly felt like something tried to grab her mind.

On reflex she teleported.

She reappeared right where she’d started, but a fresh wave of darkness blanketed the area around them and obscured the Hero from view. Reaper’s influence on Lilly’s mind vanished.

“We need cover!” Lilly yelled, but got no response. She crawled over Morina’s sprawled legs and grabbed Seth by his shirt. The car shifted as Reaper pulled herself from the front grill’s wreckage. “WE NEED COVER!” Lilly yelled again, right into her boyfriend’s ear.

She felt him nod through the darkness, just before a much stronger shudder ripped through the car.

“No! God damnit!” Lilly cursed as something hit the underside of the car and flipped it.

It was the sheriff deputy’s car all over again, but this time they were on the receiving the end of it. The car tumbled backwards, landed hard on the roof, and the now unbuckled Lilly fell hard on her back. It knocked the wind from her, and the shadow started to dissipate. She couldn’t wait until she could see the Heroes again.

She teleported outside of the vehicle. She could feel her surroundings through the shadow, so she was easily able to reach through the broken window and pull Seth out. She sensed him being cut by the jagged glass still sticking in the window frame, but she didn’t have much of a choice. Seth’s retrieval was easy. Morina’s was going to be more difficult.

Lilly sensed the Heroes entering the outer perimeter of her shadow. One had a large rifle pressed against his shoulder and was sweeping the area in front of him looking for movement. Reaper had her hands outstretched and pointed in the direction of where she thought the car was. She was right on the money.

“Down!” she yelled at Seth. She grabbed him and pulled him down behind the cover of the truck before the blast of electricity fanned outward.

She felt the blast in her teeth. Her muscles cramped up and her hair stood on end in the worst bad hair day ever, but the truck blocked the majority of the blast. The boom of the rifle and the smack of it tearing into the car followed shortly after. Thankfully, Lilly felt the bullet miss Morina, who she still hoped was alive.

“Another distraction please,” she asked Seth. “Maybe this time something that might make them back off and not put us on our asses.” The shadows were staring to slip again, and the Heroes weren’t that far away.

Brightness emerged from the darkness as flames shot from around Seth toward the Heroes. Lilly could tell from his aim that he was going for glancing blows, and trying to drive them back, not kill. The man with the rifle teleported away before the fire reached him, confirming it was Hunter. Reaper dodged by jumping away. The single leap took her outside Lilly’s ring of shadow.

“Do a sweep to keep them off my ass!” Lilly ordered, as she concentrated on the inside of the truck. She felt heat pass over her as Seth bathed the area in flame. “Get down!” she yelled and yanked him hard a second before a bullet tore through the space he’d just occupied. “Shoot and move! Shoot and move!” she shook her head.

<I can’t believe they didn’t teach you that in the HCP.> She reached into the car and grabbed Morina by the leg.

It was harder to drag a limp body than people thought, and it took all of Lilly’s strength to pull the blood manipulator from the vehicle, but even once Morina was out, there was still the question of what the hell they were supposed to do.

There was really only one solution. It just sucked ass. Lilly checked Morina’s pulse. Despite her injuries, it was strong. The blood manipulator was just unconscious, but without an x-ray it was impossible to tell how bad her internal injuries were. Then there was Seth. He continued to blast away at random through her shrinking shadowy protection. He popped up for three-to-five seconds, blasted away, and then ducked back down behind the cover of the truck. It was smart, but it could only last so long. She could practically feel Hunter getting into position for a better shot at them.

Seth was clutching his side as he fought, which only made what Lilly knew she had to do that much harder. The only one who wouldn’t feel a massive amount of pain from what they were about to do was her. <I just hope this works.>

“Brace yourself!” she yelled to Seth. She knew it wasn’t going to do any good, but hoped it made her boyfriend feel better.

She grabbed him by the shoulder, gripped Morina’s ankle with her other hand and concentrated on a destination far away. In a blast of shadow the three fugitives vanished, leaving behind a destroyed truck, two Heroes, and the lingering sound of Seth’s scream.

***

“Did you get them?” Daisy asked when the fire finally stopped. The shadow had started to fade enough that she was working her way through the frustrating mist that obscured Wraith, Seth, and Blood Hound’s life lines, but a fresh blast of darkness blotted out anything she could feel inside the shadows.

“I don’t know.” Hunter’s scopes weren’t any more effective than Daisy’s sixth sense in penetrating the darkness. He was firing blindly based upon where the blasts of fire emerged from the shadows.

At first, he thought he’d tagged Abney with a shot, approached, and almost got roasted when the broad spectrum elemental manipulator started firing again. Daisy was pretty sure Seth was just trying to keep them back, and not really trying to hurt them, but she couldn’t let that influence her thinking. Her former student was resisting arrest and assaulting Heroes. She couldn’t let him get away. Unfortunately, that was proving harder than they thought, and the growing inferno around them wasn’t helping.

The blasts of flame hadn’t hit the Heroes, but nearly a full three-hundred-and-sixty-degree fire was blazing behind them. The lush Louisiana vegetation behind Daisy and Hunter had taken a little bit that start burning, thanks to the dew and humidity, but now it was crackling away and spreading. Hunter had already radioed for the fire department, but it was going to take hours to stop the flames from spreading without the help of a fire absorber. The DVA was working on it, but there were other crises around the country that had to manage.

Daisy got her answer when the blast quickly began to recede instead of remaining to obscure their view of the fugitives. Within twenty seconds, the shadows had completely dissipated to reveal nothing. If Daisy was being honest with herself, she was wondering why Wraith hadn’t teleported away with her two friends when Daisy and Hunter showed up. She was sure the teleporter had her reasons, and they probably had something to do with injuries, which made tracking the villain down and taking her into custody that much easier. Wherever they were, they were hurting.

“Do your thing and track them.” Daisy said as she did a complete walk around the car to make sure they were actually gone. “What are you waiting for?”

Hunter had stopped at a point behind the car and had his hand outstretched into the air. “Last time I tried to follow Wraith she nearly blew me up. I can’t just follow her like that. Her MO states there’s going to be explosives on the other end, and if it’s in a populated area, me following will only get innocent civilians killed.

Daisy opened her mouth to argue, but then snapped it shut. Wraith would do something like that. “Fuck!” she cursed instead. “What can we do?”

“Wait for backup, maybe get another Hero who can contain an explosion and any secondary effects,” Hunter replied.

“How long will that take?” Daisy thought she knew the answer, and it wasn’t going to help her worsening mood.

“Hell if I know. Dispatch is working the issue now.” Hunter shrugged.

Daisy took several deep breaths to contain her growing anger, but still ended up punching the overturned truck. Her fist went through the engine block and started leaking oil all over the place.

<Great! Now I’ll have the EPA on my ass.> She steamed, crossed her arms across her chest, and tried not to break anything while they waited for others to arrive.

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PCS to Eden – Here We Go Again

“Congratulations. We have retaken the city.” Ava couldn’t stop from smiling as her gathered troops cheered at the good news.

They were assembled at the fifty yard line of Bank of America Stadium, which looked like it had been carpet bombed. The stands at each end zone were a twisted wreck of concrete, plastic, and metal. A deep gouge had been cut lengthwise down the center of the field and drew a straight line to more destruction. Michael had pushed Satan through the stadium during their titanic struggle, or maybe it was Satan that pushed Michael. Either way, a location that would have normally been used by local, state, and federal authorities for humanitarian aid purposes was not available.

It was a perfect assembly area for Ava’s troops after fighting throughout the city. The fighting had been tough in some parts and easy in others. The enemy troops; whether they were skeletal soldiers, Seere’s last legionnaires, or the serpent steed itself, had different levels of skill and power. Ava took care of the heavy hitter, but that meant her soldiers didn’t always have her support. They’d lost a handful of guardians in the fight, and that loss weighed on her. The physical wounds from the battle against the Infernals at the school had healed, but she could still see the deaths of her Guardians in her dreams; specifically Lucas.

She could still feel the shift of æther as he leapt past her to get to Lucifer. She’d hesitated when confronted with two Infernal Lords, but he hadn’t. Lucas had tried to get to them before they could complete the ritual that was leading to the end of life as humans knew it in Eden. He was a hero for his actions, but that didn’t stop Lucifer from scorching him to ash. She’d never see Lucas again. He’d been wiped from the universe, but most of the Guardians she’d lost in the battle for Charlotte would live again. Only two wouldn’t.

She’d examined that scene along with ætherial forensic specialists to see what had happened. It was easy to find the two points of detonation based on the splatter of Divine ichor, but physical bodies could be reconstituted in Heaven. She wanted to know what happened to their ætherial essence.

“Something ate them,” was the conclusion the specialist came to as they traced the fading path of those Guardians’ æther. There was the metaphysical equivalent of claw marks in the fabric of reality as the angels’ essence fought to escape and eventually failed.

The specialist wondered what could do something like this on not only a physical but a moral level, but Ava already knew the answer to that. A Divine Throne under the control of an Infernal was more than capable of such cruelty. The real question was who was controlling it, and that was something Michael would want to know.

Seere’s throne was unique among objects stolen from Heaven during the Rebellion. The instrument couldn’t be controlled by just anybody. God had specifically tailored it to Seere back when he was a Throne disbursing justice across the realms. It didn’t work for anyone else.

<Is Seere really dead?> She’d asked herself as she surveyed the scene.

Everything pointed to the Infernal being dead and gone. Ava had wounded him, but Lucifer had finished the job. There hadn’t been any sign of the Father of Lies since the battle, but the latest intelligence reports suspected he was consolidating his newfound power in Hell. Maybe the power that was taken from Seere allowed him to manipulate the throne, and eviscerating two guardians certainly was his style.

There were too many unanswered questions and not enough time to figure them out. The forensic specialists had the evidence and were carting it back to Heaven for further tests. Ava would check up on it later. Right now, she needed to focus on her soldiers and the good work they’d done in ridding the city of Infernal influence.

Today was supposed to be a celebration. She was going to present awards to those who’d distinguished themselves in combat. She was going to recognize the bravery of everyone and the fantastic things they’d accomplished. She’d even made sure some libations had made their way to the worthy guardians. After fighting hard they deserved a moment of peace.

That moment was shattered before Ava was even able to give out the second award. A tearing noise echoed through the stadium as a truck-sized cube expanded in the space behind Ava’s makeshift podium. Out of the portal stepped Michael in full armor.

“Ava and Razael, on me. Bartholomew, prepare your troops for deployment, but leave one squad to defend the city.” Michael called out orders without pausing.

<A squad!> Ava didn’t let her shock or frustration show. It had taken over two hundred good soldiers to sweep the city. Now, he was ordering her to leave it in the hands of ten.

She hurried to catch up with Michael’s longer stride. He stopped a good distance away, and made a quick few motions with his hands. Ava recognized the symbol of the power thrown into it. It was a ward against eavesdropping.

“The situation is as follows,” Michael’s tone was grave. “Early today, Gabriel was dispatched to the Amazon Queen in Manhattan to broker an alliance, and if that wasn’t possible, at least a non-aggression pact. The Amazon’s power and influence in this realm if going to be vital to stemming the tide of Infernal advances that are starting to pop up all over the globe.”

Ava didn’t know much about the Amazon’s aside from their skill in hand-to-hand combat and their powers with æther, but she could see their importance in holding Eden.

“Approximately twenty minutes ago, Gabriel and the Infernal Lord Beelzebub engaged each other just outside Central Park.”

“Oh Father.” Ava’s draw dropped. She hadn’t been to Manhattan since the 19th century, but even then that area was crowded.

“Exactly,” Michael nodded. “To make matters worse, the attack was timed with the weakening of the Veil in the area. “Nearly a full legion of Beelzebub’s monsters have made it through the Veil and are advancing into the city. The Dominion of the city is marshalling his forces to respond, but against those numbers millions will die in the collateral damage. We are marshalling all forces on the Eastern Seaboard to rendezvous in the city. Our mission is simple, defeat the Infernals and protect the city. I will assist Gabriel and counter any additional Infernal Lords that try and take advantage of the situation. Ava, you and Razael will take your two companies and secure lower Manhattan starting at the Brooklyn Bridge and back to City Hall. I want defensive wards in place in case you need to execute a fighting retreat.”

Ava worked on processing the information but knew she’d need visuals once they got on the ground. She doubted the city looked anything like she remembered. They were still working on that bridge when she’d last flown over the smoke-filled island.

“We’re hoping to have three battalions of friendly forces on the ground by the time you reach your objective. The main enemy advance looks like is going to come over the Queensborough Bridge, but battalion-sized elements are being dispatched to secure all avenue of approach onto the island. You will have three other Divine Companies in the Lower Manhattan area of operations: two at the Williamsburg Bridge and one covering the Holland Tunnel. Ava, you will have operational command of the five units. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” she answered immediately. It didn’t even cross her mind that the number of soldiers she was in charge of had more than doubled.

“You will hold until relieved, but if you cannot hold, then destroy the bridges and tunnels and fall back north to a form a final defensive line at Houston Street.” Ava didn’t like the sound of Michael’s last order. It was always good to prepare for all contingencies, but the was an air of certainty in the way he talked about it that made her feel like they were going to be facing way more than an Infernal Legion.

“Your rear should be secure. Several companies will be holding the right flank of the main defensive line from FDR Drive all the way to Bryant Park. Everything south of 42nd Street to your location should be peaceful. All you should have to deal with are frightened humans.”

<All of the frightened humans in Chelsea, Korea Town, Greenwich Village, the East Village, and  Lower Manhattan,> she named some of the big neighborhoods she knew of offhand. The humans might turn out to be just as big of a problem as the invading Infernal. She knew from experience that scared humans could cause a lot of trouble.

“Are your mission parameters clear?” Michael asked with a tone that said he didn’t expect to repeat himself. There were stress lines on the Archangel’s face, which was never a good indicator.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good.” Michael waved his hand, the ward dissolved, and the remaining power from it flowed back into the Archangel. With another complex gesture, he created another portal from Charlotte to Manhattan. “The Hand will make your gateway. I can’t spare the strength. Happy hunting.” There was no apology on his face as he stepped through the bend in the fabric of reality and it winked shut behind him.

Ava had never created a gateway before, but the Hand seemed to have a mind of its own. All it required was Ava’s willpower to direct it. It took nearly ten minutes to collect the required power, but Ava successfully created the gateway to their assigned location. It was as wide and tall as an eighteen wheeler, and allowed her two hundred angels to march through ten abreast. Bart went first with the vanguard, and she brought up the rear with Razael. She glanced over her shoulder at the nine guardians being left behind under the command of one of Razael’s cherubim. They all looked upset at being left behind. Ava understood that, but she had a sinking feeling in her gut when the gateway snapped closed behind her.

The personal wielding the power of that throne was still out there, and she didn’t know if that small force could hold the city. The last thing she wanted to do after coming out of another fight between Infernal Lords and Archangels was to fight to retake Charlotte.

She just hoped Michael knew what he was doing.

 

***

 

Michael stepped through the rift he’d created in the fabric of reality. Essentially, he’d folded space together so only a single step separated the stadium in Charlotte from the chaos in Manhattan.  There wasn’t a universal name for this ability. Different angels called it different things: teleporting, traveling, portaling, ripping, rifting, or bending, but not all angels could do it.

God did not create all his children equally. Aether needed to be appropriately rationed out to angels based on their tasks. Guardians did not need to be traveling all over the place when they were essentially garrison troops for a city. For the same reasons, Dominions didn’t need the ability. Select Powers had the talent, but it was based on seniority and how volatile their area of operations was. Thrones were the most common angels with teleporting ability, but it didn’t involve ripping gateways open. Their talents were limited to themselves, and with time and training, might grow to encompass a few others they were in contact with. All Archangels and Seraphim had the ability so they could move large bodies of troops from one place to another, but what most of the troops walking through those gateways didn’t understand was the power it required to make them in the first place.

Like all of the realms created by God and his siblings, they were comprised of æther and metaphysically alive. The æther didn’t appreciate being ripped and folded to make these gateways, so it took considerable strength to open one and keep it open. The bigger it was the more difficult to hold it, and Michael pitied the fool who got caught straddling the divide if it suddenly snapped closed.

Making gateways in the same realm were less difficult than opening one between realms. To cut through the barriers protecting each realm required a massive amount of power, which was why Eden, Heaven, and Hell had been relatively isolated from themselves aside from key moments in history. The current invasion, like the one that Michael helped lead against Cronus, took advantage of a time when the veil between realms was thin or weakened. He could now say with certainty it sucked to be on the receiving end.

Michael stepped through his gateway and immediately smelled smoke and tasted ash. The city was already burning, and it was only going to get worse. When traveling through a gateway like this he couldn’t do it while unsubstantial, so humans screamed in absolute terror as a winged, armored man stepped through a hole from a different part of their world.

An old man fleeing the destruction grabbed his chest, stumbled, and toppled over. Michael reacted on instinct and caught him. This was the end for the man’s soul on Earth. Michael saw that by looking into the man. He’d lived a good life. It wasn’t good enough to gain entrance to Heaven, so his soul would be recycled and reincarnated back into someone new. It was better than being dragged down to Hell, but the look on the man’s face made it look like he thought the last thing he was going to see was the face of the devil.

“It’s ok.” Michael took a moment to comfort the man. His armored helmet retracted to show the dying man he wasn’t talking to a monster. “Everything is going to be alright.” He let a little of his Divine essence show and tears trickled down the man’s cheeks.

Michael gently placed his hand on the man’s chest, wiped away his pain, and let him die in peace. Then, he gently lowered the man onto his back and folded his arms across his chest. <He is not the first and will not be the last. He will be one of many.>

Heaven and Hell would see a boost in their numbers after today, but Michael couldn’t think about that right now. He needed to focus on the mission: killing Beelzebub. If they could take down another Infernal Lord the squabbling that would follow in Hell would allow the Divine Host more time to organize its defense of Eden.

In the midst of the chaos Michael became insubstantial and slipped out of sight. If anything, that made the humans freak out even more, but he put them behind him as he rose into the air and launched himself toward Central Park. It wasn’t hard to miss his target. Beelzebub was a winged monstrosity whose screech was shattering glass while his claws pulverized concrete. He and Gabriel were caught in a deadly dance, and both had dealt critical blows to each other. Michael saw more than on deep gouge in his brother’s armor.

Michael ducked behind a nearby building and began his transformation. He was vulnerable to Beelzebub’s full power while he transitioned into his combat form, so he wanted to wait until he’d gained his full strength before revealing himself.

It kept him hunched behind the building as he exploded upward to his full three-hundred-foot height. His transformation made all the humans around him scatter in fear. Their screams made those present during his gateway arrival look like obedient children.

Thankfully, the area was pretty well evacuated as Michael took his first steps toward engaging Beelzebub. A two-on-one fight between the Infernal and Archangels wasn’t going to last long.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 209

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“That’s the guy.” Coop pointed at the screen with finality.

“Bullshit,” Eve leaned over his shoulder and stared at the image hovering in the air in front of them.

Coop gulped when her breasts brushed his shoulder, but didn’t say or do anything. They were still on rocky ground. Instead, he allowed Eve to reach into the image and manipulate it. She rotated it, zoomed in, zoomed out, and ran a filter to try and enhance the image. All of that only got her the same grainy picture that Coop had started with.

“I still don’t see it.” She leaned back and crossed her arms across her chest.

“What don’t you see?” GYSGT Cunningham walked over to Coop’s station to check in on the other members of Alpha Team.

Coop thought once the SGM wrapped up with their plan to covertly insert, recon, and eliminate the asshats who killed the Gold party VIPs, the SRRT would be kicking down doors and shooting domestic terrorists in the face. Instead, Coop’s ass had been firmly planted in a comfortable chair for the last three hours while they reviewed hours upon hours of footage tracking the bad guys. Coop thought he had something, but no one else seemed to see it.

“Ok, let me put this in terms an idiot could understand.” The statement earned him a glare from Eve, and he instinctually protected the gelcast. “Do you see this here?” Coop had saved an image and opened it for the GYSGT. “This is a GT 2433 Knighthawk XX. I’d be surprised if there were more than fifty of these on the whole planet.” Coop looked to the two women to see the proper awe on their faces, but both just shrugged. “It’s a brand new Gold Technologies model, and they’re saying it’s unhackable. Of course,” Coop furrowed his brow, “nothing is unhackable, it just hasn’t been hacked yet, and I doubt someone planned a hacking of this car during a party that happened on a whim with less than thirty six hours notice.” Coop looked up for more of a reaction, and still got nothing.

“They didn’t get into this car’s systems remotely, so the only way they could have known where the VIPs’ vehicles were heading, due to their randomized security routes, was if they got something physical on the vehicle. That would take access to the parking lot, which was only accessed by the valets, so that’s where I started.”

Coop pulled the images back up. The parking lot used for the VIPs for the party had been an old, hardened bunker. It was big, meant to shelter attack aircraft before PDC shields came into play. The thing was built to take a pounding, but in this instance, they were a problem. They only had an overhead view, and even then, they were getting some glare from one of the moons that was just in the wrong place.

“Ok,” Coop cued up the video. “So I started looking at the valets, and I found a discrepancy.”

“Or so he says,” Eve huffed, and Coop glared back over his shoulder.

“Seriously, look at these two.” Coop played a video of a man jogging in with the motivation of someone who wanted a good tip. Several minutes later, a car drove out, and the car exchanged hands at the valet stand. Coop froze the frame, and loaded two preserved frames. One was the guy running in, and the other was the guy dropping off the car. “See…different guy.”

The GYSGT squinted to get a better look. The two men were dressed in exactly the same clothing, the computer had calculated the man’s height to be the same, within a few centimeters difference, and the face was too pixelated to get a clear image. Both images weren’t clean overhead shots. They relied on light bouncing off other reflective surfaces. The computer could extrapolate from the available data and render images. Those images were different, but they were an eighty-one percent match, which given that this mission was going to involve some heads rolling at the end, probably wasn’t enough to get the brass to sign off on a kill list.

“Maybe.” The GYSGT didn’t commit either way, which didn’t help Eve or Coop one bit. “Still, follow the lead and see if it leads anywhere.” Cunningham walked away to relay the info to the SGM, while Eve sat back down at her own station and got back to work.

For once, Coop did what he was told. He tracked the guy, minute by minute, until the attack, where he ran for his life just like everyone else, but it got interesting when he ran out the front gate and didn’t come back. A vehicle picked him up about half a kilometer from the front gate and drove into the city.

<I’ve got you now…> Coop felt a surge of vindication and triumph for all of two seconds before the car pulled around the side of a familiar establishment. <Oh fuck me.> He easily recognized the bar he’d been at right before the party.

The computer logged everything, so Coop made sure to go about his keystrokes like it was normal. He zoomed out, and resumed his attention on the defense complex in the aftermath of the rocket attack.

“You find anything, Cooper?” The GYSGT asked once Coop shut down his system.

Coop knew he couldn’t lie. Cunningham would double check and catch him, and then his life would be shit, so all he could do was lay it off. “Looks like a dead end, Gunney. Guy hit up a bar after the attack. Hell, I’d have done the same if I didn’t become a human candle.” Coop held up his arm and grinned.

“Ok, get over here.” The Gunney waved to where the rest of the SRRT was gathered around the spook LCDR’s terminal. Coop had been so absorbed in his own shit that he hadn’t seen the huddle up.

“As many of you might have noticed,” the LCDR had already started her briefing. “We could have eliminated all four of the rocket teams surrounding the complex with the QRF, but we let one team slip out before we locked the perimeter down. We did this so we could back track their movements to their headquarters, or at least a weapons cache of some kind where we can confiscate their arsenal and capture any HVTs.”

<Why would they hightail it right back to HQ after killing off the enemy leaders? They live here, they probably know the government has eyes in the sky, so the last thing they would do is expose themselves. I’d be lying low for days after pulling off something like this.>

“We don’t expect them to return to their bosses right away,” the LCDR continued and restored Coop’s confidence in her IQ,” but we’ve had a satellite sitting on them since they hit the city. Right now, they’re in this building and haven’t moved since they got there.”

Coop took one look at the surroundings and knew kicking down that door was going to be a shitshow. It was in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There was even a ‘slow down for young children’ holo-sign blinking down the street. He bet if he watched most of the footage, he’d see a bunch of kids going to school and getting on the bus at the corner. On top of that, the house was secure. A three meter barrier wall separated the house’s grounds from the main street. It looked like a common feature for the rich on this planet. There was even a guard post for hired security. The satellite had no line of sight on what was in that small hut, and any attempt to get a different angle was met with tinted glass polymer meant to defeat just this type of surveillance. For all Coop knew, they could have an armored guy with a Buss sitting in that hut.

“We’re going to need surveillance on that building,” the SGM stated.

<Not me.> Coop was on light duty for at least another twenty-four hours due to his injury.

“Alpha Team, you’ve got the detail,” the SGM delegated, and Cunningham nodded.

“Let’s go, Berg, Cooper.” She headed for the exit.

“But…” Coop knew his plead sounded pathetic before it even left his mouth.

“You’re going to be sitting on your ass behind high-powered optics, Cooper. Light duty can’t get any lighter than that,” she interrupted, and gave him a pointed look as she passed that said he better follow.

Coop did, all the way down to the gear lockers the SRRT had on the same level as Argo.
Each team member had a personal walk-in cage filled with the latest and greatest gear. Half the stuff Coop hadn’t even been trained on yet, but the engineers and supply techs had organized everything the same in every cage, and the SGM had told them to keep it that way.

Of course, the GYSGT knew what everything was and where to find it. “Bay Three is the optical gear. Grab the helmet set, the standard binos, and the scope on your far left.”

Coop did as he was told. His V4A LACS sat in its cradle waiting to be taken out for a test drive, and ultimately adjusted, but if experience taught him anything, it was that the brass wasn’t going to sign off on the SRRT using their new LACS on this one. They were going to do this the old-fashioned way.

“Grab the bags on the right, right inside the door, and store your gear.” The GYSGT grabbed one of the thick bags and started to carefully place the expensive gear in it.

Coop followed her example. There were built-in compartments on the inside of the bag. Once he put a piece of equipment inside the compartment seemed to puff out with protective material.

“It’ll also defeat sniffers as long as they don’t have you open the bag. There’s a gel in the lining that contains any chemical signatures and the individual compartments are temperature controlled, so no heat signature.”

Coop looked at the bag and wished he’d had it back when he was smuggling shit onto New Lancashire. It would have saved him hours of programming, and the constant fear of getting busted.

“Weapons are in Bay Four, but nothing miltaryesque. We’re going to be trying to blend in, and we need to take the surroundings into consideration.” The GYSGT was already placing a few things in her bag.

The main cage door required a GIC scan, and the weapons section required secondary verification. Coop immediately saw why. There had to be two dozen weapons and ammunition for all of them in Bay Four. He saw the standard IAW3 and Buss sitting in their cradles, but a whole lot of pistols, smaller submachine guns, and what he swore was a straight-up laser cannon adorned the walls.

<I can’t wait to use that.> He kept the drool in his mouth as he grabbed a pair of pistols, and a stubby submachine gun. The pistols would be good for close quarters, as would the submachine gun, but with a higher rate of fire and more stopping power. He stowed them in the case and watched it inflate to hide and protect the items. He also grabbed a few thousand rounds of ammunition. Just in case.

“Lastly, grab the suits on the left of Bay Five.” The GYSGT unlocked the bay leading to her LACS, but didn’t go for it. Instead, she emerged with some type of black smartcloth and something that looked like plain Dragonscale armor.

“What is this stuff?” Coop held the fabric between his fingers. There was a distinct difference between its material and the CMUs he was wearing.”

“It’s an exo-steel breastplate for protection and SEALs skin.” The GYSGT carefully folded and packed it away. “It was developed for the SEALs. It helps defeat sensors and countermeasures so they can crawl around on a ship’s exterior hull…”

“SEALs do what now?” Coop nearly dropped the way-too-thin fabric. “We’re not going to…”

“We’ll do whatever they ask us to do, Cooper,” the GYSGT stared him down until he nodded and packed the last of his gear. “Get changed fast. Our ride’s waiting out front.” She tossed some civilian smartcloth as him, turned around, and started to strip.

Eve had a little more tact, she at least went into the privacy of her cage before changing, which left Coop staring at the very naked, very toned ass of his team leader. It was one of those ‘I shouldn’t be looking, but I can’t look away’ moments. Even though the GYSGT didn’t swing his way, that didn’t make it any less hot.

“Hustle, Cooper.” The GYSGT seemed to sense him staring, so he retreated to his own cage and quickly changed.

He emerged looking like some mid-level manager who was on his way home for a surprise lunch with the kids. His size, enhanced muscular structure, and gelcast made him stick out like a sore thumb, but at least he was dressed for the part.

Coop followed the two women of Alpha Team up to a van parked in front of the building.

It screamed soccer mom, but the GYSGT didn’t. She screamed MILF that would snap your neck for looking at her the wrong way, and from now on, Coop only had one image of the senior NCO in his head. The rest of the guys in Basic would have given their monthly pay to see that Gunney’s bare ass like he had.

As hard as that was to push out of the forefront of his mind, Coop had to do it. He needed to get his head in the game as the GYSGT drove the van out the back gate, randomly around the outskirts of the city for half an hour, and finally into enemy territory…suburbia.

Previous

Two Worlds – Chapter 208

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“Doesn’t this place have fucking swatters?” Coop fumed.

Sunlight had already peaked over the horizon and two of New Savannah’s three moons had set. The temperature had already crept back up from slightly bearable, to an instant recipe for ass soup, and the lingering chaff in the air around the defense complex wasn’t helping.

“It does.” GYSGT Cunningham stood in front of him. “The S2 section is investigating to see why they were late to this party.”

Coop’s temper didn’t let up, if anything, it intensified. Only some of that had to do with the colossal clusterfuck that had occurred as all the VIPs exited the Gold’s shindig. A few of the VIPs ended up having a blast…literally.

“Those swatters should have been spun up and ready to go. For fuck’s sake, you can put the damn things on auto and just let them sit there to do their job!” For the millionth time, Coop had to resist the urge to scratch a new hole in his arm. One was enough at the moment.

A translucent gelcast, encasing a few liters of blue goo, covered his arm from shoulder to elbow. From what the rest of the team told him, the medics had stabilized him quickly once they arrived and transported him to the complex’s small hospital, which was overrun with much more seriously injured people. A doctor quickly fit him with the cast, poured in the nanite-rich solution, and kicked him out to make room for one of the VIPs whose legs had been crushed. That was fine with Coop. He didn’t want to be there anyway.

The one thing Coop regretted was not taking the drugs the doc offered him. He warned Coop that the itching and irritation of the nanites repairing his damaged tissue would be unpleasant, but Coop shrugged it off. He thought he could take it. Now…he felt like ripping the arm off and beating the swatter operators to death with it.

<If I was all doped up I wouldn’t be able to help catch who did this.> He reminded himself as he bit his tongue and settled with digging his fingernails into the tabletop.

“Intel didn’t know the New Savannah Liberation Movement had that type of ordinance.” SGM Queen announced as he walked into the room with a purposeful stride.

Everyone in the room hopped to their feet as LT Wentworth and LCDR Gold followed. Except for Coop. He just held up his gelcast as his excuse. The two officers didn’t seem like they cared, but the look on GYSGT’s face said she was going to rip him a new asshole when this was all over.

“This is the same intel section that is investigating the swatter fuck up?” Coop asked. “Sounds to me like our lovely S2 section is oh for two today. Maybe someone else should take over so they can get their shit together.”

“Stow it, Cooper.” SSG Hightower and the GYSGT snapped at the same time.

“No, that’s quite alright.” A third officer entered the room with a PAD in hand and LCDR stripes on her CMUs. She quickly waved the SRRT off before they could get to their feet. “As the sergeant so aptly put it, we fucked up.” As she tapped her PAD, screens began to spring to life around the room.

The screens looked like overhead satellite footage of the city. Coop could make out the general shape of the defense complex, along with the number of city parks within the city limits. Judging by the lighting, this was real-time data.

“Ma’am, this is my team. Team, this is ma’am. No other form of address is necessary.” The SGM made the introductions.

<Oh great. A spook.> Coop just couldn’t wait to see how this turned out.

“Good morning…at least for some of you.” Her eyes fell on Coop and his cast, and Coop couldn’t help but glare at the not-so-subtle dig. “It goes without saying that any and all information you receive today is classified.” She waited until getting a nod from everyone in the room before continuing. “New Savannah is a modern planet, with the full resources of the Commonwealth at its disposal. As such, we have an integrated human and signal intelligence network in place. It is standard operating procedure anywhere where we conduct R&D research for the fleet. The various corporations have their own intelligence apparatuses, and they’ve dutifully handed over any intelligence they’ve collected. The result is a comprehensive look at what occurred last night.”

The screens began to blur as they rewound from the live feed, passed a few bright flashes, and finally settled into what Coop assumed was occurring right before the attack. Coop was surprised they caught the whole thing on camera, but then he stopped and really thought about it, and wasn’t surprised at all. When something big ever went down in the PHA the cops always caught who did it. Now it made sense how. They were always watching.

“Gold Technologies scrubbed through their SIGINT of everything happening before and during the party, and found one call that raised a red flag.” The LCDR played a recording of a person, using voice-altering tech, negotiating fees for intel on air-car tracking. The speakers didn’t directly say what they were doing, but hindsight being twenty-twenty after the attack, everything fit.

“We might have caught it earlier, but the node this went through was processing millions of calls, and the speakers weren’t using any of the code words built into the algorithm, so we missed it.”

<Oh for three.> Coop wondered how the LCDR still had a job.

She fast forwarded the video until right before the attack and zoomed in on the area around the defense complex area. “The unknown speaker made their deal with the liberation movement, and they moved people into position here, here, here, and here under cammo netting to completely encircle the complex.” She highlighted a few nondescript locations in red. They looked just like the surrounding environment on the footage, which was what cammo netting was supposed to do.

Coop looked around the room, but no one looked like they were going to ask the obvious question, so he’d have to bite that bullet. “Where’d they get the cammo netting?”

“Stolen off a vehicle disabled in one of the voting booth bombings.” The LCDR answered without missing a beat and moved on.

She fast forwarded a little farther until the first blossom of a shoulder launched surface-to-air missile sprang to life on the holo. “From what we retrieved from the launch sites, we confirmed they were firing Javelin X’s.” A schematic of the weapons system sprang to life in front of them.

HI school had Coop memorizing a lot of different weapons systems. The Javelin X’s had been one of them, and all the stats came flooding back to him. It was an older weapons system, but a favorite of anyone who couldn’t get modern military tech. Its genius lay in its guidance system. It was the first surface-to-air system developed that allowed the firer to target anti-grav waves, which made it great for shooting down anything flying without old-school fuel thrusters. It also had IR targeting, so it could shoot down those with fuel thrusters, and a line of sight option. Weapons had grown a whole lot smarter in the hundred and fifty years since the Javelin X’s production ended, but the Commonwealth had made a lot of the weapons, and many of them had ended up in the wrong hands.

It had a maximum range of thirty kilometers, and a highly explosive warhead that would punch a hole in a Spyder if it was able to hit one. Judging by the short distance the rocket teams fired from, shooting those air cars was like shooting fish in a barrel. Coop had never seen fish in a barrel, but he assumed they were easy to kill.

Coop watched the holos continue playing. The rebels waited until a good number of air-cars were mobile before rapid firing. That was the other beauty of the Javelin X. The multiple payload missiles. A single warhead fired from the launcher, but once it locked onto its target and got within a certain distance, the warhead threw out ten smaller missiles, thus the roman numeral X in the name. The manufacturers of the original design knew it was a constant arms race to keep up with the latest defensive tech, so once the enemy figured out a way to spoof the Javelin X’s systems, the manufacturers wanted to have a backup. That backup was quantity. Point defense, a swatter, or one hell of a pilot was what you needed to get away from those missiles, and judging by what Coop saw on the holos, a lot of the VIPs didn’t have that.

“The liberation movement was smart about it. This was their golden opportunity for a decapitation strike on the planetary government and fleet personnel. They made it count, and they pulled out all the stops.”

Coop watched as an air-car expertly avoided a missile by executing a ninety-degree turn around a building that must have taxed the internal dampeners to the breaking point. Unfortunately, the missile computed that it couldn’t make the same turn and detonated once it cleared the building. The blast didn’t destroy the air-car, but it caused enough damage to the engines that an emergency landing was required, and judging by the video, at least one person was injured.”

The LCDR zoomed back out to the bigger picture where the air-cars were employing their defensive countermeasures. Those countermeasures were fairly effective despite the quantity of threats they had to deal with. Still, Coop saw several air-cars go down as fiery wrecks. He didn’t see the SRRT running for cover on the holos, but he saw the cloud of chaff covering most of the defense complex.

“Casualties?” Lt Wentworth asked.

“As of when I walked in here…fourteen, including the planetary governor, Admiral Danvers with most of his staff, Savannah City’s police commissioner, and several other local politicians and business leaders.”

“Sounds like they completed their mission.” Coop didn’t mean to say it too loud, but everyone in the room picked it up. “I’m just saying…they went for a decapitation strike, and they killed the planet’s political and military leaders. I’d be worried about local defense force ships coming under enemy control now.” Coop’s eyes looked upward. He’d never seen orbital bombardments, and he was eternally grateful for that.

“There were a few scuffles on a few ships,” the LCDR spook answered. “But it doesn’t look like the movement was able to penetrate the crews well. The cops and soldiers on the ground are a different story. We’re already receiving reports that towns, cities, and even an entire province in one case are declaring independence from the Commonwealth.”

“That’s for the local defense forces to handle.” The SGM stepped forward to retake control of the conversation. “What this whole shitstorm gives our team is a golden training opportunity. Lieutenant Commander.” He waved for the officer to continue to play the footage.

After the rocket teams rapid fired their payloads, they scattered. Spyders on alert five, were in the air within a minute and hunting them down. Three of the four teams found themselves on the business end of an air-to-surface missile or a 35mm cannon with explosive shells. However, the fourth team made it to a nearby road, and into a vehicle that hauled ass toward the city despite several occasions when a nearby Spyder could have lit them up.

“Cooper, what did I say our mission parameters as a Splitstream Rapid Response Team were?” The SGM turned on Coop.

“Uh…” Coop quickly searched his memory, “isn’t it sabotage, covert insertion, reconnaissance, and target elimination.”

“Are you asking me a question or is that your answer, Cooper?” The SGM just stood there waiting.

“That’s my answer, Sergeant Major.”

<If I’m wrong, at least I’m answering wrong with confidence.> Coop mentally shrugged and waited to get chewed out.

“Correct.” The SGM turned back to the rest of the team. “We’re going to study this intel, execute a covert insertion, recon the objective, or objectives, and when given the green light, eliminate the targets. Questions?”

Coop had an unrelated question, but he didn’t raise his hand. Everyone in the room looked like they were ready for some payback, and no one wanted to hear him ask where the nearest bathroom was. Getting the guys who’d successfully destabilized the local political and military landscape was a lot more important than the shit Coop needed to take.

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Bonus Chapter – Two Worlds – Chapter 207

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

The party went on for several more hours, which was kind of a pain in the ass for Coop. After his fight with Eve, he expected to be able to storm back to his barracks and not see her again for the rest of the night. He got as far as the front door before getting a message from Cunningham to get his ass back to the table. He practically chucked the empty tiramisu bowl at a server on his way back.

After dinner and dessert, the guests broke up into groups for after dinner drinks. Waiters walked around with real-wood boxes of fine cigars from Earth’s tropics, which despite several hundred settled worlds, was still the best place to grow tobacco. With medical technology being what it was, the rich people here could indulge in all the vices they wanted to and suffered no side effects.

<Meanwhile, a guy in the PHA gets lung cancer at thirty and can’t afford the treatment.> Coop was very quickly losing patience with the people around him, and their sudden interest in the soldiers in uniform wasn’t helping.

“What’s this mean?” an attractive woman, who could have been thirty or ninety, due to the blue in her eyes, slurred as she poked Coop hard in the chest.

“That’s my marksmanship badge,” Coop replied, looking for a way out of the conversation.

“What’s that mean?” the woman repeated.

“It’s an Expert Badge, which shows I’m a really good shot.”

“Wow…like against people…” the woman’s eyes went wide, and Coop bit his lip instead of replying. “What’s that?” She moved up and poked at a ribbon.

“That’s my bronze star.” Coop thought he’d found a way out of this conversation.

“What’s that for?”

“I killed a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Coop’s attention wasn’t on the conversation anymore.

“What?”

“Nothing… I don’t want to be part of this conversation anymore, so I’m going to go over there.” Coop pointed at a spot away from the woman and quickly walked away, leaving her with her mouth open, and not knowing what to do.

“Aiko,” he called out to the woman as she conversed with several older gentlemen.

“Sergeant Cooper.” Her tone and expression showed how uninterested she was in talking with him.

“Petty Officer Lee.” He made the wrong move and mocked her.

<Idiot.> He nearly smacked his hand against his forehead as she turned away from him and back to her gaggle of admirers.

A few women saw him free of a conversation partner, and started to move on him. It didn’t seem to matter to them that they were married to some of the most powerful people in the system. They were drawn to his good looks and uniform like moths to a flame.

Coop knew he was never getting married, because in a world with longevity treatments, marriage, until death do us part, could be a long fucking time. He would bet his monthly paycheck that these men and women at the party had gotten married young, had seven or eight decades together, and were now bored out of their minds. Variety was the spice of life, and they either kept things spicy, or let it fall apart. Their status wouldn’t let them divorce, and suffer that shame, so they figured out other ways to make it work.

He was not going to be a part of those games, so Coop headed for the bathroom with all due haste. It wasn’t empty, but no one in the small room conversed with each other. Guys didn’t do that. So, he took the opportunity to splash some water on his face, and hopefully wait out the women trying to engage him in conversation.

He did that for hours. Sometimes he was successful. Other times he was not. The women he was trying to avoid seemed to find it a fun game to chase him around, and when they caught him, he had to endure the same awkward military-themed conversation from people who had no idea what they were talking about, on a topic he didn’t really give two shits about. By the time things wrapped up, all he wanted to do was collapse into his bed and sleep through the weekend. The healthy buzz from the expensive cognac only helped take the edge off.

“Everyone on me.” The SGM waved them over as people started to funnel out. “Cooper, are you drunk?”

“No, Sergeant Major.” Coop shook his head.

“How about we do some PT and find out?” the NCOIC offered.

“Naw, I’m good.” Coop’s answer indicated he was a little tipsy.

“Tomorrow we’re going to start our training.” The SGM ignored Coop’s remark, although Coop knew he wouldn’t forget it. “We’ll form up at zero-five-hundred here.”

Coop’s PAD pinged with an email that held a location on the far side of the complex. He wanted to complain about it being the weekend, but he had a feeling the SGM didn’t give a shit. Coop didn’t think he’d have a lot of free time coming up.

Coop and the rest of the soldiers were standing in the open space in front of the defense complex’s central building. The party guests were filtering out to the front gate, where the valets were working double time to get their vehicles out to them as quickly as possible. Nothing was worse than a rich person having to wait for something, and the valets’ tips depended on it, so they sprinted to get it done. Coop saw the LCDR walking with his father, and the hottie, out with some of the bigger VIPs to see them off. Thankfully, he didn’t have to worry about any of that chaos, because he was heading in the opposite direction.

People were shaking hands and getting in air-cars as Coop turned to walk away. He made it about a hundred meters, and a few thoughts on how to remedy the clusterfuck between him, Eve, and Aiko, when the base alarm started screaming.

He instinctually moved to find cover, which wasn’t much in the open space between the buildings. He crouched, behind a too-small waste dispenser, and turned back toward the front gate.

A lot of people left the party via the main road in front of the complex. There was a no fly zone around the area, so they had to drive a little farther away before going airborne. The exception to that rule was the VIPs. Due to security precautions, they went airborne right away, and took randomized routes back to their destination. That probably wasn’t business as usual, but after the recent attacks, it made sense to implement.

Coop looked for the source of the alarm. His alcohol-addled vision sharpened as his body went into fight or flight mode. <There.> His eyes focused and clearly tracked the contrails of inbound surface-to-air missiles.

The air-cars took evasive action. EW flairs shot from the cars’ undersides to confuse the missiles, while chaff canisters deployed and exploded in a shower of burning, blinding brilliance. Unfortunately, one of those canisters exploded right above Coop’s position.

“Motherfucker!” Coop threw his arms over his head and sprinted for better cover. The stuff in those canisters was designed to burn in space, underwater, or wherever else it was supposed to spoof enemy targeting systems.

It looked like burning snow was falling all around him. He felt some impact his CMUs and immediately begin to burn through the smart-cloth. He joined the rest of the SSRT as they sprinted under cover of a nearby building.

“Get it off!” Eve yelled as her hands clawed at the fabric. The self-adhering smart-cloth worked against them now, but two people yanking Coop’s clothes off got the job done. It still wasn’t fast enough.

“FUCK!” Coop’s legs buckled as a small bit of chaff got through his CMUs, and into his bicep. It would continue to burn until it consumed all of its fuel, which at the moment was Coop’s body.

“Hold him down!” Eve yelled.

Rough hands grabbed Coop. One set wrapped around his torso to keep him from thrashing, another controlled his head and shoulders, and lastly, one pair was specifically for keeping his arm pinned.

Spots exploded in Coop’s vision as the pain grew and he felt like he couldn’t breathe. He didn’t even see Eve whip out a knife and stab it into his arm. It was just one of the many sources of agony. He didn’t even watch as she cut away at his flesh like he was a steak at the butcher’s shop. The whole impromptu procedure took less than thirty seconds, but it left a blackened hunk of flesh in its wake, and a half-unconscious Coop.

While Cunningham, the SGM, and Mike held down Coop. Aiko kept an eye on what was happening outside. They were all unarmed and sitting ducks if things got even more fucked up, but she couldn’t miss what was happening. The world in view continued to burn, but it wasn’t the only thing. Fires raged outside the front gate, either from cars on the road that had been hit, or a crashed air-car. Aiko caught sight of one air-car spinning out of control and slam into the defense complex hard. A second seemed to be making an emergency landing with a large chunk of its back half being blown off. A third raced through the air, closely followed by another missile, but it was an air-car, not a Spyder, and its countermeasures seemed to be expended. The attempt to outrun the missile failed. The explosive struck the vehicle from behind, set off a cascading failure, and the whole vehicle turned into a giant fireball the spewed shrapnel everywhere.

A huge piece of flaming metal imbedded itself into the building less than two meters from Aiko’s position, so she wisely ducked back inside the foyer, where chunks of Coop’s flesh lay discarded on the polished polyplast floor. The receptionist at the desk on the far side of the lobby looked like she was about to faint.

“Don’t just fucking sit there!” Aiko screamed. “Call the medics. Let them know that their weekend just went to shit!”

It took a moment for the receptionist to snap to, but when she did she was on the phone calling everyone.

“Hell of a party,” Coop grumbled as the SGM stuck an injection in Coop’s arm just below the shoulder. The relief was immediate. “Yeah…that’s the stuff.”

He faded into unconsciousness before the medics arrived.

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PCS to Eden – It Looks Like Someone had the Same Idea

A lone angel hovered insubstantially above the swirling clouds. He gently flapped his wings to stay airborne as the morning light penetrated his gleaming Divine Steel armor. Normally, to be more diplomatic, he wouldn’t be armed for war, but the current circumstances had prompted Michael to issue a general order to anyone leaving the gates of Heaven. They were to be armed and ready at all times. The Veil was thinning and breaking. Behemoth and his clan were holding the majority of Infernal forces back, but a trickle were still getting through, and that trickle was going to become a steady stream sooner rather than later. The Divine Host needed to be prepared at all times to repel the invaders.

Gabriel, Archangel and Messenger of God, shook his head at what was happening. He hadn’t been forced to sleep with his sword within arm’s reach since the Rebellion and subsequent campaigns to push Satan and his allies off Eden. As his Father’s messenger, Gabriel was a diplomat before a warrior, and he never wanted the people he was meeting with to be instantly combative. In his opinion, nothing productive happened when the point of a sword was poised against someone’s jugular. Words and actions bound people together much better than fear and violence. Unfortunately, the people he was meeting with were combative by nature, and the Divine’s past actions toward them were not endearing.

Gabriel took a deep breath and exhaled. It was cold in the upper atmosphere, but his breath didn’t fog the air like a human’s would.  He took a moment to calm his thoughts, set his mind on the task before him, and then began his descent.

Heavy fog rolled through the early morning air as he flew lower and lower. The sunlight would burn away the fog eventually, but the island prison he was visiting was swaddled in it. It had been several hundred years since his last visit, and he marveled at how things had changed.

After his Father’s defeat of Cronus, certain factions of the other Primordial’s creations were simply too dangerous to have around humans. A massive relocation effort was undertaken to send these dangerous ancient races to the less populated fringes of the world. At the time of Cronus’ defeat, human population was centered on the Asian, African, and European continents. Life existed elsewhere, but those were the cultures his Father sought to influence and evolve. As a result, the Western Hemisphere of Eden became a common relocation spot.

The particularly stubborn species Gabriel was descending to meet had been uprooted from one island and deposited on another. Cronus had created them to be cunning warriors, and they were the last thing God wanted around humans. Unfortunately, millennia hadn’t dulled their minds. When the expansion to the New World of many European nations occurred, the island meant to be a prison had been a perfect location for a colony. The species had blended with the immigrants; first the Dutch, then the English, and finally the fledging Americans. Despite his Father’s wishes, the species had been allowed to flourish in their prison with one exception: they weren’t allowed to leave the confines of their island. As technology shrunk the world, that limitation mattered less and less.

Mountains of steel and glass rose up out of the fog to catch the morning sunlight. Gabriel flew around two, and through one, as he continued his descent toward his destination. The lower he got the clearer the island of Manhattan became. Nearly ten million people were waking up on a weekday morning and going about their business without any knowledge of the danger their planet was facing.

<That’s the way it should be.> Gabriel reminded himself, even if the truth was beginning to leak out. Michael and Satan’s battle had seen to that.

Gabriel reached the ground and looked for somewhere to become substantial. It used to be as simple as finding an unoccupied telephone booth to slip into, but with all of the cameras and technology keeping a watchful eye on the city, finding a discrete location was more and more difficult. Luckily, Gabriel was well equipped to handle things like this. His Father bestowed his children with gifts. Michael had strength equaled by only a few in existence. Thrones could travel nearly instantaneously from one point to another to fulfill their duties as Divine distributors of justice.  Gabriel’s gifts allowed him to be good at diplomacy. His perception was altered in ways others weren’t. He could see the pattern in things, he could see angles others couldn’t, and he could read creatures better than anyone.

His eyes were automatically drawn to the three cameras in the area where he landed. His vision highlighted the zones the cameras covered, to include what the crack in one of the camera’s lenses was obscuring. He flapped over to a deadspot and shifted fully into reality. He wove a spell around himself as he emerged to ensure he didn’t frighten some poor lady to death on her way to the neighborhood bodega.

Instead of an armed angel with snow-white wings, and gleaming silver armor with runes glowing with golden light, everyone saw a well-dressed man in a black suit that fit in anywhere on Wall Street. Gabriel’s stylish, jet-black hair framed a handsome face, on top of a tall, athletically-thin physique. Several heads turned to follow him as he emerged from the cameras’ blindspots and walked the last few blocks to his destination.

Over the centuries, Gabriel had met ambassadors dispatched by the Royal Family to discuss terms. Nothing budged from the original terms his Father imposed upon imprisonment, and the ambassadors usually left angry. That was one reason why Gabriel was anxious going into this meeting. They’d never given these people anything that they wanted, why should they help the Divine now when the Divine had little leverage.

The location where the meeting was taking place showed just how informed the other party was about the Divine’s current predicament. They’d met at several locations throughout the city, but never at the seat of their power.

The building on Central Park South looked like an upscale apartment complex with individual units that could sell for well into eight figures, but Gabriel knew better. The building was one massive residence where the elite of the exiled species lived, and the top few floors were the private residence of the Royal Family. It didn’t take Gabriel’s special gifts to read between the lines. They were flaunting their power, wealth, and influence. All three of which the Divine needed to enlist to help drive back the Infernals.

He walked up to the covered portico where a tall woman in a doorman’s outfit kept a close eye on the passing humans. The three-piece suit didn’t do much to hide her feminine qualities or the slight bulge of a concealed handgun in a shoulder holster. Her high-cheekbones and bright blue eyes probably had talent scouts trying to recruit her every day, but Gabriel knew she studiously ignored them or mildly threatened them until they left. Despite her looks, she had a military bearing and precision in her appearance, and his practiced eye easily identified a soldier.

He stopped in front of her and produced an invitation. It had about as many security features as the new American one hundred dollar bill. The woman whipped out a tablet, scanned codes, double-checked photos, and scrutinized Gabriel himself. She was a little taller than him in his current form, and she made sure he knew it as her eyes drilled down into him.

“First elevator on the right, pigeon.” She sneered as she slipped the invitation in her pocket and turned her attention back to the street.

Gabriel put on his diplomatic smile and didn’t take the bait. Pigeon was this species’ slang for angels. It dehumanized the Divine in their eyes and made angels seem small and weak. Very few species could make that kind of statement and actually back up their claim. That was one of the reasons they had been banished from the civilized world millennia ago. They were hard to control.

The first elevator on the right was flanked by two women in black suits, black shirts, and black ties. Their hair was close-cropped, and they didn’t bother to hide the compact machine guns slung across their chests. They boarded the elevator with Gabriel and rode up with him to the top floor.

He could tell they weren’t in a talking mood, so he rode in silence until the gentle BING announced their arrival. The twin elevator doors spread apart into a small foyer. A half-dozen more women armed to the teeth were waiting for him. Firearms were slung or strapped to them, but older weapons were also present. Swords and spears that had spilled Divine æther glistened in the artificial light.

<Ignore them.> He told himself. He could tell they were still trying to intimidate. The “this is my house” attitude was thick on each of these women, and him doing anything but being compliant was only going to make his impossible task more difficult.

They patted him down and wanded him for weapons. It went crazy when it cut through his illusion and recognized his armor. The women just smiled as they relieved him of his sword. He knew he would get it back, but he felt a little more naked without it.

With a nod from their commander, they made a square around him with the original two guards from the elevator. The wall in front of them slid apart to reveal it was made of heavily reinforced-steel. They were also coated with protective enchantments. Gabriel would have to be in his combat form to get through.

“Presenting the Archangel Gabriel, Messenger of the False God, My Queen.” A woman heralded his arrival to a room packed with woman. Then the large woman turned to Gabriel. “Behold, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Eater of Men.”

Gabriel diplomatically bowed at the stunningly-beautiful woman on a throne at the far end of the room. She was the definition of ancient and regal all rolled into one. A crown made of the largest diamond ever discovered adorned her head and threw rainbow –colored light across the room. To either side of her were six smaller thrones. On each sat another beautiful woman. Everything about the six princesses was a little different, but each had the same hard, calculating eyes of their mother. These were not women to be taken lightly.

The Amazons themselves were an impressive race. They were one of the last creations of Cronus before his downfall, and were touted as an upgrade to humanity. They were physically twenty-to-fifty times stronger and faster than humans, each of them possessed genius-level intellects, but they retained the ability to mate with them. Personally, Gabriel thought it was a final fuck you from Cronus to his Father when the primordial figured out his sibling was going to conquer his realm.

An Amazon reproduced by having sex with a human male just like a human female. The gestation for an Amazon was less than three months, and within six months the newly born Amazon advanced to puberty. Once reaching puberty, the young amazon needed to kill and eat their father to evolve into a fully-mature Amazon. An Amazon reached their optimal physical state within one year and enjoyed immortality from then on, so every woman in the room, including Hippolyta, looked to be in their early twenties. The Queen could easily be mistaken for her daughters’ sister.

Unlike other creatures of æther created by Cronus, Amazons didn’t require it to survive. They were more like humans that way. They could still manipulate the æther that permeated everything in the universe and were renowned for their ability to channel it into mentally manifesting objects or storing power in specially designed artifacts. Gabriel knew the crown on Hippolyta’s head held enough power to injure an Archangel in its combat form, and the throne she was sitting on directed power into workshops beneath the building that forged and stored it in everything from weapons to luxury items. Each of the princess’ crowns also held considerable power for them to wield, and they were all masters of their craft. That was the strength of the Amazons: a combination of physical prowess, shrewd intellect, and skillful channeling of æther. Many angels and Infernals had died by their hands.

The question Gabriel’s Father had before him, once Eden was subdued, was how to control such a powerful group. The answer was simple and crude: population control. As strong as an individual Amazon was, they were stronger together. War Bands of thirteen Amazons could channel æther into a single woman while continuing to fight. They’d fought through a chunk of the Cherubim Guard during the War for Eden in an attempt to make God bleed. They’d failed, but many others had spilled blood on their campaign. The goal was to ensure that never happened again.

Guardians and the Domain for the city kept a close tally of the number of Amazons in existence. No more than one hundred and sixty eight were allowed to be living at one time. Like any living creature, the Amazons didn’t like being told when and where they could fuck. It was just another grudge standing in between Gabriel’s mission to gain their support and failure.

“Great Queen, it has been too long.” He replied humbly and waited to be called forward.

When your host was millennia old, they tended to have traditions, and were unhappy when they were broken. “Gabriel.” The way the Queen spoke his name didn’t bode well for their meeting. “Did you come to make sure there were less than three hundred and thirty six tits?” Her words lashed into him.

“No, Great Queen, I bring other news.” Gabriel raised his head and kept smiling.

“Is this the news about how your hold on this world is finally crumbling? Or how the great False God has finally bitten off more than he can chew? Or is it how he let everything become undone by allowing a single half-pigeon to get butchered by an Infernal beast?” The queen was smiling savagely.

“I assure you, the news of my Father’s missteps are greatly exaggerated.” Gabriel finally let a little iron slip into his tone.

The gathered women recognized it immediately. “Is that why you come to my home dressed for war?”  Hippolyta waved her hand and a wave of æther wiped away Gabriel’s illusion.

He stood there in his armor and simply shrugged. “I thought I better come prepared. You have a…reputation.”

Silence…and then the Queen chuckled. Her daughters followed suit, until the whole room was laughing. Gabriel kept a diplomatic smile on his face.

“A pigeon with a sense of humor. How rare.” She waved another hand and guards brought out a comfortable-looking chair that was set thirty paces from the throne. Gabriel took it with a grateful nod.

<Progress.> He’d take what he could get.

“I believe we have much we can discuss, and in ways that can benefit both of our people.” Gabriel began, but the Queen held up her hand.

“I believe we have very little to discuss. In fact, there are only two things worth discussing. First, we want off this island, and second, we want to be free to reproduce.” Heads around the room nodded fervently.

“I can take the request to my Father, but I doubt anything will change.” Gabriel did them the honor of at least being honest.

“Well then…” Hippolyta leaned back on the thrown and casually crossed her legs. “I don’t know what you can say or do to impress upon me the desire to help you.”

Gabriel could tell from the set of her shoulders and the minute twinges on her face that the Amazon Queen was enjoying this, and she also never had any intention of helping. The past between their two peoples was too bloody to think they could make it work, and even if they did, both sides would be expecting a knife in the back at any moment. That was no way to fight a war.

“I can respect your decision noble Queen.” Gabriel got to his feet before he could even begin to enjoy the plush chair. “But if I may make a suggestion?” He waited for the Queen to nod before continuing. “If you won’t fight with us then don’t fight against us.” He said the statement with no diplomatic flair. It was just shy of a threat.

Women bristled all around him, but the Queen just grinned. “I will make no move to align with either side, or put my people in danger, until the right moment.”

<The right moment.> There was something in the woman’s eyes that Gabriel’s sixth sense caught a glimpse of.

The Amazons as a people favored strength, skill, and honor above all else. The women scattered around the room might look like college seniors, but they were hardened warriors who’d built a foundation in a prison on the opposite side of the world and turned it into a mecca of power. New York City would not be what it is today without the influence of the Amazons.

“Thank you for accepting our invitation.” Hippolyta rose from her throne and the rest of her daughters followed he example. “As thanks for coming all the way down here I’d like to present you with a token.”

Gabriel’s warning bells immediately started ringing in his mind, but he didn’t let his anxiety show. The princess farthest to the left gracefully descended the steps. Gabriel knew her name was Diana. She was only sixty years old and was the youngest of Hippolyta’s children. She was the only person in the room born after the American Civil War.

Gabriel spotted the tension coiled in her shoulders from a mile away, but read the determination etched into her symmetrical face. Her hair was the fiery red of a gorgeous sunset, and freckles dotted her sun-kissed skin. She stopped several feet from him and extended a small bundle wrapped in white linen. The moment her took it she backed away. Wrapped in the bundle was a ceremonial knife.

The moment Gabriel touched it he felt the spell activate. It was a binding charm. Nothing terribly powerful, but something unexpected. Its purpose was the more pressing issue.

“It’s a dangerous city, Messenger. We wouldn’t want something bad to happen to you on your walk home.” The way Hippolyta dismissed Gabriel made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Angel’s didn’t evolve with natural predators like humans, so it wasn’t that. Only a shift in the æther could trigger that kind of biological reaction in him.

<Something’s happening.> He knew that much, just not what.

He expected all the Amazons in the room to ambush him when he turned his back to return to the elevator. Nothing happened. They even returned his sword to him. He expected the guards to open fire on him once they started their descent. There was no doubt in his mind the bullets in those rifles were tipped with Divine Steel. Still, nothing happened. He even expected the doorwoman to stab him in the jugular with a ninja star as he walked out the front door, but the only difference he smelled was a sight tang in the air.

“Have a good day, Pigeon.” The woman walked past him inside the building, shut the door, and locked them behind her. He felt the flare of æther as the buildings powerful protective wards activated. He expected to be attached again, but again was met with nothing but a growing funky odor.

At first, he thought it was the hot dog vendor on the corner, but the odor was moving. It was drawing nearer and more pungent. He inhaled deeply and smelled everything: the foot-long quasi-meat in hot water, the condiments, the scent of oak from the park across the street, a passing baby that needed to be changed, and…

<Sulfur.> His head snapped around as a homeless man stopped in his tracks twenty feet away.

“Shit,” the stench on the man’s breath was nauseating even from that distance. “Though I had you.”

Everything fell into place like dominos. The meeting, the looks, the binding spell, the buildings defenses. This was the right time for the Amazon’s to make their decision, but they were going to do it on their own terms, and one of their time-honored traditions was trial by combat. When the dust settled the Amazons would owe their allegiance to one side, <And they tried to stack the deck against me.> The homeless man was holding a similar knife in his gnarled hand.

“Not here.” Gabriel’s eyes shot to the innocent people passing by. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, within his eyesight, and millions within range. It was the middle of the week, during the morning rush. Casualties would be catastrophic. “Please.” Gabriel debased himself to plead with the Infernal.

“You can always just lay down and die.” Beelzebub, Infernal Lord of all that Flies, took another step toward the Archangel.

Gabriel matched his move with a backward step.

“Huh,” the Infernal cocked his head and smiled. Cracked yellow teeth and oozing, bloody gums stared back at Gabriel. “Looks like you don’t care about the innocent as much as you say you do.”

The Infernal’s body started to swell. His skin ripped to show slick, black feathers. His face extended into a beak, and beady-black eyes stared back at Gabriel.

“Father, forgive me.” Gabriel sent a quick prayer along with a call for reinforcements before he allowed æther to fill him.

The illusion he’d reconstituted vanished, his armor glowed brilliantly in the morning sun as he exploded to his full two hundred and seventy five feet. People screamed before four talons squished them without a second thought. Gabriel lowered his helmet’s visor and brought his sword up into a ready position. Fire cascaded around the blade and he roared his defiance at the Infernal’s challenge.

The two ætherial beings met with a crash that destroyed everything around them except for a single building. Behind the powerful protective wards, the Amazons watched and laughed.

Revenge was sweet, and the damage about to be inflicted on the city might just be enough to weaken the wards holding them captive. Whoever won, the Amazons hoped to be free. Owing a small blood debt to one side or the other was worth that to them, but ideally, they wouldn’t owe anyone at all.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 206

Benjamin Gold

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

The head of the long table was the place to be, but Ben wanted to be anywhere else. The elite of New Savannah sat around him, talking like a group of old friends, and discussing items trivially that affected the lives of millions of people. As a ship’s captain, Ben was used to making critical decisions that affected others, but he’d never heard it discussed so… nonchalantly.

“Labor contracts are wrapping up.” A bald man with sharp brown eyes was saying at his spot across for Ben and two chairs down. Since modern technology had eliminated baldness, the man’s lack of hair was a choice, not biologically predetermined. “We were able to talk down cost of living increases, but we had to give extra vacation days.”

“Readiness is at an all-time high,” the man directly across from Ben, in a black uniform with red trim, stated to the man sitting between him and Thomas Gold.

Thomas was politely listening, but Ben could tell his father’s situational awareness was finely tuned to everything around him. “Military strategy isn’t much of my forte, gentlemen. My son would know more about that.” Thomas passed the conversation off to Ben, who suddenly found himself staring at two of the most powerful men in the system. “Ben, you’ve met New Savannah’s Governor, The Honorable John Willoughby, and the head of the New Savannah militia, Admiral Mark Danvers.”

“I haven’t had the pleasure yet.” Ben nodded respectfully to both men, because reaching across the table to shake hands was bad etiquette.

“We prefer system defense force to militia, Mr. Gold,” ADM Danvers replied as he returned Ben’s nod. “Militia sounds like a junior league collection of weekend warriors. The New Savannah System Defense Force (NSSDF) has an infantry component of two hundred and fifty thousand men, and a fleet service of twice that split between a squadron of battleships, two cruiser squadrons, and a flotilla of destroyers and gunboats to help with commerce protection.”

The ADM was clearly proud of his spacers and soldiers, and he should be. Ben hadn’t seen a lot of defense forces in person, but he’d read statistics, and had access to the readiness reports like any other ship’s captain. The NSSDF was one of the better ones in the Core Worlds. Too many of the planets close to Earth or New Washington, especially when they weren’t near Blockie space, thought they were untouchable, and let their security lapse with the hopes that the Commonwealth Fleet would pick up the slack. Despite the fleet’s massive tonnage, and always growing number of ships, the galaxy was infinitely bigger. The Fleet wouldn’t be everywhere at once, and with the current war on two fronts, that was truer than ever. Some systems were finally starting to see that, and were quickly trying to arm themselves, but it wasn’t that easy. It took time to properly train soldiers and spacers, and even more to get a ship’s crew to gel and be effective in combat.

On the bright side, many soldiers and spacers who were looking at getting out of the Commonwealth Fleet, and were looking for something more stable, were finding a lot of work to pick up their former occupations in service to a single system. In several of those instances as well, corporations were stepping in to pick up the slack. Cue, the woman sitting next to Ben.

“New Savannah has a top of the line defense force, Admiral, and Blacktide greatly values the cross training opportunities we’ve had between our ships, but I for one have been dying to talk to the Hero of New Lancashire.”

Ben was thankful that the other dinner conversations covered the groan that escaped his lips, but RADM Stillwater’s scoff and eye roll weren’t as subtle.

“I’m no hero.” Ben waved off the praise.

“Of course you are,” Vanessa pushed. “Because of your actions seventy five thousand people were extracted off New Lancashire before the Windsor’s Fleet took the planet. I’d say that is pretty heroic.”

“Yeah right,” this time the RADM’s scowl wasn’t even slightly hidden. His thoughts on Ben’s actions were loud and clear.

“Still,” Ben had to stop from glaring at the RADM, “I was just doing my job. I had information, and had witnessed firsthand, what the enemy was capable of. I passed that information along to my commander, and allowed them to make the decisions regarding Fleet actions. However, with that knowledge, I was not going to allow the corporate assets I did have authority over to be destroyed. My orders to Gold’s Carrier Group was to help the people I knew were going to need help, and even with that assistance, we still didn’t get everyone out.”

“Regardless,” ADM Danvers waved away Ben’s modesty, “I’ve seen those sensor recordings, and I’ve been privy to after action reports of the Windsor’s more recent raids. You did the right thing Lieutenant Commander.”

“Thank you, sir.” Despite himself, Ben smiled.

<Maybe there’s a slot for me in the NSSDF if I get the boot from the Fleet and don’t want to go corporate quite yet.>

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and people love to Monday morning quarterback split second decisions.” Thomas reentered the conversation. “But I happen to know for a fact that people are starting to come around to the fact that you did the right thing, and I’m sure they’ll want you to continue to be involved in actions against the Kingdom of Windsor, since you have some of the most experience dealing with them diplomatically and militarily.” Thomas Gold said it all while casually taking bites of his main entree, but to Ben, it was a wild departure from the norm.

Since before Ben could remember, his father had wanted him in the business, not serving in the fleet. There was a reason that had changed, and the reason would have something to do with the benefit of Gold Technologies and the Gold family.

“Personally, I think what you did was very brave.” Vanessa threw in her two cents, but Ben was so preoccupied trying to figure out his father’s motive, he nearly missed her hand settling on his thigh. The key word was almost. Ben was distracted, not dead.

“Oh…ummm…” Ben nearly choked on his drink, coughed repeatedly, and successfully splattered bourbon down the front of his CMUs. “Shit.” He cursed under his breath, but it gave him an excuse to get up. “Excuse me gentlemen.”

Ben knew it was rude, but he got out of there as quickly as possible. First, to the restroom for a nano-spray that would easily remove the alcohol, and second, down to the opposite end of the table.

“How’s everyone doing?” He asked the rest of the SRRT team.

Jacobi shot him a look that said they needed to talk later. Ben had no idea if she’d been watching him or not, or if she’d seen Vanessa make a move, but he could feel it was going to be an interesting conversation. It wasn’t every day that a person met their idol, got a private dinner with them where they showed interest, and then the very next day got a pointed reminder that she was of a junior class, and got shuffled down to the end of the table while Ben got paired with a much more suitable, potential partner. Ben was not looking forward to that conversation.

“Excellent, sir.” The SGM smiled a little brighter due to the open bar.

“The food is excellent, sir.” The GYSGT seemed to be keeping pace with the NCOIC.

“Great, sir.” The SSG and SGT Sullivan didn’t have the rank to feel comfortable drinking more than one drink, so they were busy keeping an eye on the new junior NCOs.

“It’s been a great opportunity, sir.” SGT Berg’s smile was strained.

“Uh.” Cooper grumbled, while SGT Enders gave Ben a thumbs up, and Aiko just shrugged.

Ben shot the SGM a pointed glance concerning the junior NCOs, and despite the man’s situation, he got the message. Ben left the group of soldiers and sailors in the capable hands of the senior NCOs, while he went back to the head of the table. He still hadn’t talked to the Police Commissioner, the Lieutenant Governor, the party leaders in the planetary government’s legislature, or a slew of other important people. Ben made sure to fix a smile to his face when he returned, while at the same time directing it away from Vanessa. He didn’t want her getting any wrong ideas.

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop followed the GYSGT and Eve out into the hallway. There was constant traffic with the wait staff, but no other guests were present. It was the perfect place for Cunningham to chew their asses out.

“What the hell is going on between you two?” The NCO cut to the chase.

“Nothing, Gunney.” Eve stated before Coop could open his mouth.

“Don’t blow smoke up my ass, Berg. Everyone can see something is up. Even the Lieutenant Commander saw it in the five seconds he spent with us. Now spit it out. What’s going on?”

“Sergeant Berg is being a bit of a bitch, Gunney.” Coop took his filter off.

Despite himself, Coop braced for either the Gunney or Berg to take a swing at him. Neither did, but Eve looked mad enough to.

“Berg?” Cunningham turned to Eve.

“Nothing, Gunney, just frustrated is all.” Eve looked like she was chewing nails, but held her tongue.

Coop didn’t have that talent. “Bullshit,” he called her out. “You were just laying into me about not deserving anything and putting me down. I’ve had to deal with my own shit, it might not be ranger-level shit, but I’ve had to survive, and I don’t need you shitting on me for what I’ve done since Basic.”

“Cooper, do you think you deserve to be a sergeant?” The GYSGT calmly asked the question.

“Well…” Coop pondered.

“You most certainly do not.” She finished for him. “Neither of you do. Neither of you have the time in grade requirements. Neither of you have attended the NCO academy. Neither of you know what it means to be an NCO. So, Cooper, if she’s giving you a hard time about it, it’s because she’s right. Both of you should still be enlisted.”

Eve looked vindicated for about half a second until the Gunney turned on her. “Now, for your shitty attitude, Berg. Sometimes you get shit details handed to you that you don’t like. This is not one of them. You don’t deserve to be a sergeant, but you are. There is no taking that back. You’re an NCO with a great opportunity, so embrace it. Get the experience, get the knowledge, and when you finally get to the NCO Academy you crush it. You too, Cooper. Learn from all of this. The Sergeant Major is a fucking legend, and I’ve got a few life lessons to impart myself. So soak it up like a sponge, and don’t jerk off or make excuses that will get us all killed. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Gunney.” Their reply was just short of a shout.

“Good. Now you two hash things out quickly and get back to your seats. I’m pretty sure there will be rounds of toasts to everyone and their mother coming up.” The GYSGT executed a tight about-face and strode back into the ballroom.

Eve and Coop just stared at each other for a moment. “So…” Coop broke awkward the silence. “You don’t like Aiko.”

“I don’t have any problem with Petty Officer Lee.” Eve shot back. “My problem is with you, Coop. I don’t care what you stick your dick in. I care about how reliable you are.”

“That’s not what it looks like to me. It looks like you’re jealous that I hooked up with her once upon a time, and now you’re that one that’s being unprofessional.”

“Unprofessional,” Eve hissed, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. “Like you traipsing off to shady bars with her.”

That stopped Coop clear in his tracks, and he was pretty sure he went an unhealthy shade of white at the same time. “How…?”

“Just get your shit together, Coop. You’re on an elite team now. We all need to trust you, and one of the two people flying us around. Don’t jeopardize that, or any of us, that’s my biggest problem with you.” She stopped and the two of them locked eyes. “And… maybe I think you can do better.” She said the last bit in a rush and hurried back into the ballroom.

That left Coop alone in the hallway while waiters flowed by with the evening’s dessert. He swiped a tiramisu off a passed woman’s tray, much to her distaste, but he didn’t care.

<What the hell just happened?> Coop’s mind spun as he tried to figure everything out. <Mmm that’s good.> He contemplated as he tried to figure out how Eve knew he’d gone with Aiko to the bar in the first place.

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