PCS to Eden – Behind Enemy Lines

Gabriel staggered into the alley. Blood dripped from wounds on his shoulder, torso, neck, and legs. He tried to take deep breaths as he leaned up against a brick wall, but a sharp pain stabbed into his side every time he drew breath. He knew he’d broken some ribs, but that was just the cherry on top of the sundae that was his fight with Beelzebub, then Lucifer, and then the leviathan that had showed up out of nowhere. The last one was the one who’d done in his ribs. After knocking Michael clear across the city with that wrecking ball of a tail, it had got in one good hit while Gabriel tried to flee.

The ground shook beneath his feet as the Archangel thought about the giant creature. It was still looking for him, but Gabriel had shrunk down to his human size to avoid detection and slip into the city. He’d become a needle in an urban haystack. The creature’s frustrated roar was proof of that.

<Keep moving.> Gabriel told himself as he pushed against the wall and grit his teeth.

Divine ichor stained the wall as he moved away and limped deeper into the alley. Gabriel was healing, but slowly. His supply of æther was severely depleted from the battle, and it was replenishing at barely better than a trickle. It was the first time this had ever happened, and it took a moment of thought to figure out why.

The simple answer was ætherial mechanics. The Divine and Infernals had been fighting for control of Eden for millennia, and for the most part, the Divine were successful. Even in the places the Infernals had taken control, the Divine were still able to syphon æther because their blueprint of existence was the same. Most of the Infernals were former Divine angels after all. There were a few non-Divine Infernals, but Gabriel had never had prolonged interaction with their minions, or been injured to this point in captured territory.

What he was dealing with now was something not seen on Eden since the war of conquest. Gabriel felt the shift as Michael abandoned the field of battle, while he was dodging the leviathan and shrinking down to a size he could hide at. The feel of the æther had snapped away from him. What was usually comforting and close by now felt like it was cold and far away. He could only reach and pull in a trickle of it. With his battery essentially drained, and nothing new coming in, that put him in real danger.

The sound of feet slapping against concrete drew Gabriel’s attention to the mouth of the alley he’d just enter. He wasn’t insubstantial, because that took energy to maintain, and he quickly wished he was. A beautiful woman with high cheekbones, a raised chin that failed to hide a major superiority complex, and a spear on her back stared back at him.

Gabriel looked at her, she looked at him, she smiled, pulled a pistol from beneath her jacket, and opened fire. Gabriel was already diving for cover, but she was a quick draw. Bullets streaked towards him as he put a dumpster between him and her.

Even in his injured state, human bullets shouldn’t have been able to harm him, but these were bullets crafted by the Amazons. They were tipped with Divine Steel stolen from dead angels during the war of conquest. Thankfully, all but one missed him due to his quick action. But the one that did hit him ripped a big hole through his already bloodied wing.

Gabriel grimaced in pain as he tried to make himself smaller behind the metal barrier that smelled like week-old Chinese food. The Amazon hunting him didn’t waste ammunition. She stopped firing once Gabriel had taken cover, but he knew she was calling for backup. If they were able to take down an archangel right at the start of their rebellion then that was a loss God couldn’t easily come back from.

<Survive, Escape, Evade, and get rescued.> That was the plan. He knew his brother wouldn’t just leave him.

Gabriel trained his senses on the alley. He unleashed his gift for pattern recognition and spatial awareness bestowed by his father on the situation. He saw the Amazon’s possible avenues of approach laid out before her. Based on the ripples through the æther, the sounds bouncing off the walls, and the scents in the air he was able to pinpoint her location.

He angled himself against the dumpster, took a deep breath, summoned his waning strength, and pushed. The dumpster launched toward the Amazon like it had been fired from a slingshot. Gabriel might be injured, but he was still an archangel of God, and archangels were no slouches.

All he heard was a muffled curse, and the resounding crash of metal striking flesh, but that was enough. Gabriel went insubstantial and slid through the concrete beneath his feet. He fell down until wooziness hit him like a ton of bricks and he became substantial again. His feet hit something solid and it was immediately clear he was in the sewer surrounded by garbage and scurrying rodents.

<I can’t fall any lower without being dead.> Gabriel acknowledged he’d hit rock bottom, accepted it, and started to move. He needed to put as much space between him and his last known location as possible. A small army of angry Amazons would be converging on the area to hunt him down, and the last thing he wanted to do was get caught. He’d be presented to Hippolyta on a silver platter, and that was an experience he was unlikely to survive in his current state.

<They call her the eater of men for a reason.> He shuddered, ignored the squishy substance he stepped in, and kept moving.

 

***

 

The mission was simple: rescue an archangel of God from a horde of angry Amazons. Ava had received Michael’s intent. He wanted this done quickly and quietly. She was to get in, find Gabriel, and get out. The Divine Host wasn’t prepared to fight a prolonged battle with the Amazons yet. Not when they had a leviathan currently sun bathing across most of Central Park.

Of course, this was all way easier said than done. Like every other angel in the area, Ava had felt the ætherial shift on the island of Manhattan. She doubted she’d be able to pull in a handful’s worth of æther if she got into trouble. This mission had to be stealth, and it had to be done with the resources at hand.

This had her, and more than a few others, confused and frustrated. The Divine Host, the ever-victorious army of God, was not used to having logistical issues. Even during the war for Eden, God had been able to secure ætherial supply lines for his forces. It would be ideal if something like that was in the works, but when she asked, Michael shook his head.

<Warding.> It was a simple explanation, but it had profound consequences.

First, it showed the limitations of God when he wasn’t in the same realm as the æther. Despite all of the tweaking over the last millennia, Eden and Heaven were still different creations at their core. God had patched stuff, written new ætherial code here and there to get things more toward how he liked them, but that wasn’t the same as having created the hardware in his own image. Plus, anyone with enough power and skill could do warding.

That being said, warding to keep God’s fingers out of the ætherial pie in Manhattan had to be extremely powerful. Ava guessed the Amazons had been channeling æther into a complex series of wards stationed through the island for the last century. A little here and a little there to avoid drawing any attention, but after a long time that amount added up. It also showed that the Amazons had been planning this revolt for a long time. They were just waiting for the right moment.

Ava knew the Host’s first mission when they fought to retake the island was to locate and destroy those wards. When she’d briefed her team about their extraction mission, she added a secondary objective of locating those wards to hasten the coming battle. She wasn’t going to go out of her way to find them, but they’d be scouring the landscape to find Gabriel, and if they came across warding then they were going to take advantage of their luck.

<Speaking of my team.> Ava looked out at the two people she was bringing with her.

Bart and Razael sharpened their blades and tried not to look nervous. As a dominion and cherubim, they were both two powerful creatures of æther, but they’d also just spend some quality time on the other side of the river. They knew they were heading back into a war zone, and no one, angel or human, liked to throw themselves back in harm’s way like that.

Ava had wanted more guardians to accompany them. Even as few as a squad would have been preferable, but that suggestion got shot down. There were more than a hundred Amazons roaming the island, and with God’s influence gone, they might already be reproducing to increase their numbers. Their numbers were already what made them a threat, and it was going to be like playing whack-a-mole to reinforce their population control after this was over.

All of that was in the future. Ava needed to focus on the present. She needed to get in, get Gabriel, and get out. Losing was not an option.

“You ready?” Ava asked her two partners.

They simply nodded, and the three angels went insubstantial. They weren’t on the banks of the river so the enemy could see them and estimate their avenue of approach. They were a block away and behind cover. They also weren’t taking a straight-line approach to the city. They knew the defenders would be setting up more warding, obstacles, and patrolling for signs of a counterattack. Because, rightly so, they knew the Divine weren’t going to give up millions of innocent souls.

Ava and her team planned to take a circuitous route. The Amazon’s headquarters was relatively centrally located around Central Park, but Ava had ingressed and egressed with her troops in Lower Manhattan, so she was not going to follow the same path. The enemy could be expecting that, or they could not. They could try to play mind games with each other and tactically react to that, but when you started making double and triple contradictions you just ended up with a mess. So, instead of approaching from the East River side of the Island, Ava and company were approaching from the Hudson River side right around the Lincoln Tunnel area. It didn’t put them right at the doorstep of the leviathan and Amazon HQ, but it put them close enough to get a sense of things before progressing.

Ingress was difficult because they wanted to leave as little of an ætherial footprint as possible. Ava knew they Amazons were going to be watching, and being insubstantial only went so far. Flying was out, so they opted for the opposite approach. Like the American Navy’s SEALs, Ava and her small team descended below the surface of the murky Hudson River, and using their wings, propelled themselves forward. They stuck to the deep water, to avoid any detection, and only surfaced when they reached land.

To anyone watching their emergence, it would be eerie. Water didn’t drip off the angels when they were insubstantial. They just seemed to rise from the depths in full armor, alert, and ready for battle. They didn’t find anyone waiting for them. All they saw was a small pier, complete with trees and benches, and behind it a city burned.

Ava motioned for the team to spread out across the pier and proceed toward the row of tall buildings across Twelfth Avenue. She didn’t talk out loud or use the unique frequency angels used to communicate. She relied on hand and arm signals to get her team moving. Anything more had the potential to alert the enemy to their presence. When they were so far behind enemy lines, with no backup, something so simple could be deadly. Ava hadn’t fought Amazons before, and she would like to keep it that way until she wasn’t outnumbered.

The three angels proceeded to the end of the pier and halted before the open street. There were a number of abandoned cars, but no people in sight. Ava scanned in every direction to ensure no one was watching before waving Bart to move. Two would pull security in either direction while one crossed. Bart started off at a good sprint, made it halfway across, and then fell. Since angels didn’t just trip and fall, Ava knew something was wrong.

<Go!> She motioned for Razael to move, and she followed right behind him.

She quickly made it to the point where Bart had gone down, and figured out why. As she passed over a manhole symbols flashed, electricity tickled her skin, and she tasted ozone. It didn’t hurt, but she could immediately tell something was different.

<Warding!> She helped Razael gather up Bart and finished crossing the street to take cover in an alley. <Damn.> She caught sight of herself in a window and saw her reflection clearly shining back at her.

The Amazons were moving quickly to consolidate their hold on their territory. Step one was warding against one of the angels’ greatest strengths: the ability to turn insubstantial. Ava and her team were now vulnerable to the most common form of surveillance: a simple eyeball, or in this case, a much more powerful Amazonian one.

“We need to get off the street and find something to help blend in.” Ava didn’t like it, but walking around in gleaming, silver armor was just asking for trouble. With hundreds of Amazons and only three of them, they needed to blend in. She had to prioritize security versus speed and stealth. The mission objective dictated speed and stealth took priority. She made note of the ward’s location for the coming assault on the island.

She led the group forward for a few blocks and looked for a place to change and something to change into.

“Move!” A voice yelled, followed by a loud SNAP, as Ava approached another intersection.

She held up a raised fist that instructed the group to halt. Bart and Razael immediately moved to find cover while she crept forward. She peered around the edge of the brick building and grimaced at what she saw. A line of shackled men was walking down the middle of the road with two Amazons herding them like sheep. The men had been stripped of their clothes and many showed signs of recent beatings. It didn’t take a big leap for Ava to figure out what was going on.

The Amazons were a female species, but they still needed men to reproduce. That man then needed to be killed by his new daughter when she reached maturity at a much more rapid pace than normal humans.

<This takeover must me a smorgasbord for them.> Ava watched the line of men pass. She wanted to help, but she had a mission to complete. She would be passing this intel on to Michael though. Even if the men did the dirty today, it would still be a while before the Amazonian young matured and killed them. The Divine Host had a little time. <But how many will we be facing?>

Ava didn’t want to think about how many more male prisoners were being taken all over the island. It had been evacuated during the battle with Beelzebub and then the leviathan, but there was no doubt in Ava’s mind that tens thousands of people didn’t make it out. They were huddling in their apartments, praying for someone to come save them, and all they were getting were angry women coming to enslave, procreate, and eventually kill them.

Things were not looking up at the moment for those poor men.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 217

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

The kick caught Coop by surprise. He mentally berated himself for that. He was supposed to be a top-tier operator of a covert team working with the latest technological innovations. Instead, he’d been distracted by a pretty face.

<It’s not any face.> He barely registered the railing hitting him in the lower back and the momentum driving him over it.

The face itself was different, along with the body. The Hailey Coop remembered had been smaller and thinner, but despite that, there were some things that hadn’t changed. The first were the eyes. Those amber pools were exotic as hell back in the PHA. Since leaving that festering shit hole, Coop had seen much more exotic. Hell, he’d even fucked a chick that’d dyed her skin blue for whatever reason. Hailey’s eyes weren’t as exotic anymore, but he remembered every detail of them. He’d stared into them on many occasions, and during many different situations, for years. You remembered stuff like that.

Second was the voice. Electronic voice modulation or simply biological manipulation of the voice box could change a person’s voice easy enough. Hailey hadn’t done that. Coop would recognize that voice anywhere. She must have gone through a similar process in trying to identify him. He wasn’t a skinny little PHA Rat anymore either, but her reaction was totally different. He wanted to ask her how she was, what she’d been doing, and how she got to New Savannah. The planet didn’t have a reputation for a cheap standard of living.

She, on the other hand, reacted with violence, and Coop’s complacency was rapidly catching up to him with gravity’s assistance. He heard the whine of an energy weapon powering up just before he hit the ground. He tensed and tried to twist and rotate to keep his head from impacting. The thump and spasm of pain that ran through his arm indicated he’d at least succeeded in that, but he had new problems to worry about.

He rolled, and came up to see his head had missed the edge of the fountain by centimeters. That sent a shiver down his spine. He might be a super soldier, but falling half a dozen meters and smashing his head on an edge like that would have fucked him up. He only had a fraction of a second to think about that before the snap of a round passing close to him pulled him back to his present shitty situation. A round fired by one of the guards stationed around the room impacted the water in the fountain, sending a wet spray into his mouth and face. The second hit the opposite edge of the fountain and faux-rock shrapnel exploded from the point of impact. The third would have taken Coop in the neck if he didn’t duck and roll.

He maneuvered around the fountain to maintain cover and concealment, but it would only last for so long. There was more than one guard in the room and they were converging on him from many different directions. He didn’t have a weapon, he didn’t have options, so he didn’t have a choice. He needed to move and hope that guards weren’t the best shot.

He looked around and saw his best bet. The bar was only about fifteen meters away and people were scattering at the sound of gunshots. That would give him a little cover if the guards cared about their guests, which wasn’t a given.

One guy wasn’t fleeing though. Coop recognized him as the soldier-type fellow from the bar. He calmly leaned against the bar, drank his booze, and laughed at Coop’s predicament. Coop identified him as a threat, but the guy wasn’t shooting at him, so he was less of a threat than the guard converging on his position.

<Fuck it!> Coop couldn’t wait any longer. He braced one foot on the fountain’s base, got the other foot out in front of him in a sprinter’s stance, and pushed off with all his strength.

The guard’s anticipation of catching him as they rounded the corner, and his surprising speed, caught them off guard. They fired, despite the people scurrying for cover, and their first rounds were well behind him. Coop knew as well as anyone that fifteen meters might not seem like a lot of space, but it seemed to stretch on for an eternity when someone was trying to kill you. Eventually, the guards were going to adjust.

Coop slowed down for a moment as he bowled over two fleeing men in front of him. They looked like normal guys, and his enhanced frame smashing into them sent them flying, but that second cost him. Rounds started to fly all around him, and impacted behind the bar. Genuine glass and polyplast exploded as the high-velocity darts of the guard’s weapons destroyed them and the mural of a tropical sunset that filled the wall behind it.

Coop felt a pain and a burning sensation in his leg, but he didn’t slow down. He vaulted the bar like an Olympic athlete, and turned his good shoulder toward the wall. His speed was a disadvantage now, but he took the impact as best he could, putting a big dent in the wall before falling behind the cover of the bar itself.

<Thank god that wasn’t a shitty wall.> If it had been cheap construction he would have likely gotten stuck in it and killed. He pushed that aside of he considered his possible courses of action.

“Hey, Janice,” he said casually to the bartender who was cowering next to where he’d landed. The previously flirty woman scowled back and put as much space between her and him as possible. He got a good look at her ass as she crawled away, but he was sure that was as far as he would get with her.

He shook his head and focused back on his surroundings. With his thoughts still slightly on Hailey, his old PHA Rat ways came back to him a little. He’d been spoiled by the infantry, especially the HI, and without his armor and high-tech toys he needed to go old school. Coop reached underneath the bar where the cheap shit was usually kept. The high-priced booze was usually on the shelves to show patrons how fancy the joint was, but those bottles were all shattered. That was ok. The cheap stuff would do just fine.

He grabbed a rag that was lined with microscopic cleaning nanites that bartenders had used to wipe down glasses since the beginning of time, and stuff one end in the top of an open bottle. He turned the bottle upside down to get the end nice and wet. Then he found a small butane torch that bartenders used for some of the fancier drinks, and lit the opposite end of the rag. It held out against the flame for a few seconds as the nanites did their best to do what they were programmed to do, but eventually they were burned away and the rag caught.

Since Coop jumped over the bar about eight seconds had passed, and as long as the guards weren’t fucking morons, they’d be pushing their tactical advantage. Coop needed to buy time, so he lobbed the centuries-old Molotov cocktail up and over the bar. The bottle broke on the other side and the flames started to spread. He just hoped it was enough.

Coop tried to think of a way out as his hands hurriedly made another improvised fire bomb. He was just about to toss it when someone stuck their weapon over the bar and started to fire. Coop tried to pull back but he wasn’t quicker than a bullet. A round went through the middle of his foot.

More pain set his nerves on fire, but he was sure it was a through-and-through wound. In the grand scheme of things, taking a round in the foot wasn’t the worst that could happen. He could still fight, and the idiot who was firing blind had just given him an opportunity. He reached up, grabbed the man by the weapon and pulled him over the bar.

The guard cursed as he tried to resist, but Coop was far stronger and was able to brace against the bar’s foundation. The guy came up and over while Coop twisted. The guard’s wrist broke and he lost the weapon as he fell head first to the floor. That dazed the guy, and let Coop react. He could have shot the asshole in the face, but he wasn’t sure if he should. With all the investigations happening since the terrorist attack, and the ones that were going to result from this clusterfuck, he didn’t need more people looking to closely at him. So, instead of ending the guard, Coop just kicked him firmly in the face. It still royally fucked up the man, Coop made sure he was fugly for life, but the guy was still alive.

Coop now had a weapon, and it looked like the guards were waiting to see if their buddy was going to come out on top. They didn’t have a problem firing into the crowd of fleeing patrons, but with one of their own in the mix they held their fire. Coop used the time to finish the second Molotov and chucked it when maneuvering. He popped up from behind the bar away from where the second cocktail landed, and tried to hit, or at least suppress, the guards. He got one in the shoulder, and counted three more before he had to duck back down.

What he didn’t see, and what scared him a lot more than the three remaining guards, was Mike. His big buddy should have been getting in on the action, but he was nowhere to be seen. Coop knew nothing would keep his battle buddy from jumping into the fray to help, so whatever it was must be serious. That added a whole other element to the situation. He needed to move and move quick.

Sirens started to wail above and foam shot down from the ceiling like thickly packed snow to smother the flames. Coop used the distraction to vault the bar again and make for a nearby door. Surprisingly, no rounds reached out to try and bring him down, but that didn’t mean he slowed down. He hit the door at a full run and crashed through to the other side. The hallway looked empty, but Coop didn’t trust it, so he beat down another door until it relented and he got better cover.

<Any day now guys.> Coop and Mike hadn’t entered the Oasis with any communications gear because it would have been picked up by the revolving door’s scanners. However, there had to be people streaming out of the place, yelling about a fire, and if the suppression system went off then it must have triggered some alarm. With all of that going on, the rest of Bravo Team acting as the QRF should be in the building any second.

As if on cue, Coop heard loud voices yelling from the other room. He gave it a few seconds to see if any gunfire was exchanged, but when it wasn’t he felt it was ok to come out. He stepped out of his little hiding place and was immediately cold cocked by what felt like a battleship at full speed. He crashed to the floor while his head spun and stars overwhelmed his vision. Instinct brought the weapon up and fired a few times in the direction he’d been attacked, but he didn’t know if he’d hit anything until he blinked away the bright lights clouding his vision. He didn’t see anyone, so he’d missed. He flexed his jaw experimentally. It hurt like a bitch, but it wasn’t broken. Whoever hit him had been tough and fast.

“Cooper!” Eve’s voice breached the mental fugue threatening his head. It was possible he had a minor concussion too, but he focused on her voice and hobbled toward the door he’d smashed through just a minute before.

“I’m here.” He emerged to a scene of destruction. A few bodies of patrons were down. Sullivan was looking them over while the SGM watched the guards and Eve looked for him. It seemed when presented with more opponents, the men surrendered without a fight.

<Chicken shits.> Coop spat out a glob of blood. He’d bit his tongue when punched, and the blood was welling up in his mouth.

“Geez,” Eve looked him over with concern in her eyes.

With the action over, Coop’s adrenaline cut off and he started to feel his injuries. The foot obviously hurt the worst and left a trail of blood. The side of his leg burned from a flesh wound a guard had fired when he was making his break for the bar. Other than that, and the ache in his jaw from the unknown assailant, he was ok.

“Mike!” Coop turned away from Eve and hobbled toward the last place he saw his big teammate. He didn’t have to search anymore. Mike was right where Coop left him.

“Get a medic!” Coop knew the term might betray them as military but he didn’t give a shit.

Mike was lying in a pool of his own blood. He looked a white as a sheet while his hands covered a gruesome wound in his abdomen. The blackening around the area said it was from an energy weapon, and without armor the big guy was defenseless.

“Tried to get out of the way,” Mike weakly explained when Coop bent down beside him with a grimace.

“You’re gonna be fine.” Coop didn’t know if that was the truth, but who told someone they weren’t going to make it. “They just took a few kilos off you.”

Mike didn’t laugh at the joke. “It was the guy in the room with the girl. Pulled a pistol and shot at me when you went over the railing. The girl ran off that way.” He pointed to an exit door at the far end before the pathway started to curve up to the third floor. “Way to leave me hanging.”

Coop had a comeback locked and loaded, but Sullivan showed up and shouldered him aside. As the Bravo Team medic, Sullivan had all the stuff needed to stabilize Mike before they could get him back to the hospital on base.

Coop stood up to find Eve standing beside him. She looked down and Mike with rage in her eyes. Apparently, she didn’t like one of their team getting BBQ’d any more than he did.

“What the hell happened, Coop?” She asked, her voice calm, but devoid of emotion.

“Someone I never thought I’d see again showed up.” He left it at that despite the questions in Eve’s eyes. He’d save it for the AAR.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 55

“Ouch…shit!” Anna Fletcher fumed as the red, semi-solid ball hit her hard in the boob. Someone on the other side of the court laughed at her pain, and she gave them the finger.

Becca winced at the sight of her teammate being eliminated. That left Team 3 with only two other players remaining. Team Two was methodically picking them off one by one. It was sweet revenge for the other team, and mildly embarrassing for Becca’s team.

To get the sophomore class back in the swing of things the instructors had immediately planned another team event for three days into the semester. Becca and the rest of the sophomores were still busy finding the optimum route to their new classes when they were unceremoniously thrown into a classic game of dodgeball.

The game had been outlawed at most public institutions throughout the US because people said it allowed the strong to pick on the weak. They were probably right, but sometimes people need to have their ass handed to them to motivate them to do better. It was better to have a relatively-benign ball do that than fists and feet. For members of West Private University’s HCP, a red ball was a welcome change of pace from fists, feet, and super powers that routinely were thrown around the place.

Becca deftly dipped to the right as a ball missed her by inches. For a person that was used to being faster and nimbler than anyone else, this game was more than frustrating. Coach McMillian had laid out the rules before they started, and rule number one was no powers. For some, like Mason and Casey, that was impossible, but most people in the class could control their abilities. The close combat coach was keeping a close eye on the strongman types to make sure they didn’t throw the ball too hard and hurt someone. The students might not be able to use their abilities but he could, and he would be able to get to the person before the ball could.

Becca backpedaled to increase the distance between her and the four remaining players from Team Two: Anika, Teresa Shaw, Liam Garrison, and Emilia Scarborough. Anika had just tried to take Becca out, and it wasn’t to dinner and a movie.

Winter Break had been great for them. They’d split the time between Becca’s family, and Anika’s adoptive parents. They’d laughed, loved, and enjoyed their time to the fullest while still doing occasional training. Still, the first couple days back demanded that they get back into fighting shape.

Becca clutched her ball and considered whether or not to throw it. It was useful to have one to deflect shots. If she knocked away and incoming throw with her ball then she wasn’t out, and giving up that advantage when Team Two had two-to-one odds against them was tough. On the flip side, she needed to give up the protection if she wanted to even those odds. It was interesting how life’s challenges of being stuck between a rock and a hard place were exemplified in such a simple game.

Finally she decided to take a chance. She raced up to the line and looked like she was prepared to return fire against Anika. Her girlfriend backed up, but watched Becca intently. She bent her knees, lowered her center of gravity, and prepared to make the split-second decision of trying to catch the throw to eliminate Becca, or dodge. Right when Becca reached the line she quickly pivoted forty-five degrees and launched her ball diagonally at an unsuspecting Liam Garrison. The toxic obfuscator was busy trying to read what Team Three’s only other remaining player, Carson Long, was going to do. Carson was normally an ass, but his smack talk did the job of distracting Liam perfectly.

Liam still caught the flash of red in his peripherals, and tried to get out of the way, but he wasn’t fast enough. The dodgeball hit him in the shoulder with a loud SMACK.

“Garrison, out!” Coach McMillian yelled as Liam started to slouch off the court.

Becca started to back pedal again when it was her turn to see a flash of red in her peripherals. <Stupid rules!> If she had her speed she would have been able to dodge easily, but without it, it became clear she wouldn’t get away. Even worse…

SLAP! The dodgeball hit her square in the cheek. Becca felt the sting immediately, and was sure it would be red for at least an hour.

“Whitfield, out! Scarborough, no head shots, you know that. You’re out too!” The Coach ordered, and they both complied.

Becca swore she saw Emilia grinning as they both walked off the court. Becca didn’t condone the nickname assigned to Emilia and her group of friends: stuck up bitches (SUBs), but she sure thought she was one at the moment.

Back on the court, it was now two on one. Carson was facing off against Anika and Teresa. Carson still had a ball for defense, but that virtually eliminated his ability to make a catch, which would remove one of Team Three’s players from the game while bringing back in one of his teammates.

Virtually was the key word there as Anika made a throw and Carson went for the long shot. Instead of dodging, he slid into the path of the ball. He maneuvered his own ball to one arm and tried to catch her throw. It would have looked awesome if he succeeded, but Anika was a virtual strongwoman herself, and even though she was backing off her strength, it still meant the ball had some zip behind it.

Carson misjudged the slide and the ball hit him high on the shoulder and rebounded at a bad angle. He reached for it, and got his fingertips on it, but it wasn’t enough. It hit the ground and Coach McMillian called the game for Team Two.

“That’s two-two. It’s the best of three, so next win takes the cake.” Becca was surprised when told there was an actual welcome back cake waiting for them after this training session. She’d be careful when she ate it though. She wasn’t a freshman anymore. There could be a ‘surprise’ training even just when the cake was starting to settle in their bellies. That was something the instructors would do.

The whole dodgeball tournament just seemed too nice.

 

***

 

Mason had dipped, ducked, dived, and dodged around for twenty minutes. People would think at six-nine, with the body of a bodybuilder, he’d be one of the first to go. They’d be wrong. He thought part of it was because people thought they could leave him to deal with later while they tried to get rid of his teams more deadly players. Rowan had proven to be a maniac, and since he was still a relative unknown to the class, he’d been vigorously targeted until finally being knocked out of the game. Likewise, Lorelai Gilford had proven clever and resourceful. She been the last to be knocked out, and left Mason alone to face the remainder of Team One.

Team Four hadn’t gone down easy though, and they’d been allowed for one player to remain in the game after being knocked out because they were down to six instead of seven members. No one talked about how they’d lost their seventh member.

Angela’s team was a worthy opponent, and Erin had made sure to knock out the angelic shifter as quickly as possible. Alex Webb had been tough, along with Natalia Romanoff, but when it came down to the endgame it was the last person Mason wanted to be playing against. It was a battle of the class giants, and most respected couple in the class, Mason versus Kyoshi.

“Don’t get beat by your girlfriend, dude,” Simon Skylar yelled from the sidelines. “You’ll never live it down.”

Mason ignored him and slid to the side to avoid Kyoshi’s throw. She missed, and he immediately returned fire, but she was already moving at the expected counterattack.  Despite all appearances, he knew she wasn’t using her power. It was just common sense. She knew him, she was thinking tactically, and she knew he would try and immediately take advantage of her vulnerability. Mason had even tried to foresee which nearby ball she was going to go for, but he must have telegraphed his move, because his throw was embarrassingly inaccurate.

“Come on, Mason.” Rowan groaned as Kyoshi grabbed another ball and they returned to the stalemate that had already lasted close to five minutes.

It was getting old, and Coach McMillian seemed to be thinking the same thing. The winner of this best-of-five match was going to face off against Team Three in a one match sudden death for victory. Mason was about to commit to another assault when Kyoshi beat him to it.

She surprised him by charging the center line, but more importantly, she brought her arm back to make the throw very early, and exposed her chest. Mason didn’t hesitate and stare at the chest like some love-struck idiot. He took action. He half-cocked his arm and threw. He felt a little guilty that he might have put a little extra zing on the throw since he didn’t wind up all the way, but McMillian didn’t call him out on it. There wasn’t any need to.

At six-seven, Mason didn’t think his girlfriend was capable of the maneuver. She had jumped, and while airborne, twisted so that she would not be able to land on her feet. She was going to land hard on her shoulder, and would feel it in the morning, but she clearly wasn’t thinking about that. The gutsy twist-leap made it so Mason’s center-of-mass shot passed in the space between her armpit and hip. That left him totally exposed, open for a counterstrike, but more importantly flat footed. He flexed his knees to dive away, but Kyoshi’s ball was already rocketing toward him. Of course, due to her aerial acrobatics, and her naturally uncoordinated nature, her shot wasn’t completely on target either.

The red ball flew in at a respectable speed and made solid contact with his junk. If Mason was a lesser man he probably would have gasped in pain, groaned, and fallen dramatically to his knees. However, anything short of a .50 caliber round hitting him in the nuts wasn’t going to elicit that reaction. Instead he rolled his eyes and looked at his girlfriend as she landed hard on her side and skidded to a stop.

“Really?” he asked as Team Four groaned in defeat.

She just shrugged, which included a small wince, as Team One rushed the court to help her to her feet.

“Team One wins!” Coach McMillian announced. “Why don’t you walk it off, Jackson.”

“I’m good, Coach.” Mason replied.

“Not that.” McMillian shook his head. “I’m talking about your dignity, man. You just got righteously outmaneuvered by your girlfriend. Go take a lap to earn your man card back.” The Coach’s good-natured smile accompanied the ribbing, but that didn’t stop the rest of the two teams from laughing at their class’ biggest and physically strongest member.

Mason took it all in stride, and even laughed a little himself. Kyoshi would make it up to him later.

 

***

 

“Are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?” Mason finally broke the silence.

All the original inhabitants of Townhouse 117 were sitting in a mostly-deserted corner of the Student’s Center. It was the first chance they had to gather together as a group since the start of the semester. The get together had started with some light bragging from Angela. Team One had gone on to win the face off with Team Three. Teams One and Three had become the two top contenders in the team competition; followed by Team Two, and lastly Team Four. That bothered Mason, and he knew Seth’s absence had something to do with it. It was hard for a future group of Heroes to grasp that they’d been teammates, and even friends, with someone who’d gone as far astray as Seth Abney.

“If by ‘elephant’ you mean traitorous, backstabbing asshole, then sure,” Anika replied. She had never liked Seth, and his recent choices only validated her position in her own mind. The voice of moderation, Becca, remained silent.

“Call it what you want,” Mason could quite bring himself to rebuke Anika. “We need a plan.”

“There is no plan. There’s only the truth,” Becca stated. It didn’t sound like much coming from the good-natured speedster, but everyone present realized she was putting her foot down.

“We’re not saying to lie, or do anything like that,” Kyoshi stepped in since she had a better idea what was on Becca’s mind. “What Mason is talking about is how we move forward from this.”

Everyone had been interviewed several times by the HCP staff, the DVA, and other law enforcement agencies. They’d milked every bit of information out of the small group that they could, but since the events of Winter Break, there was a new schedule of interviews lined up.

“We don’t know anything. We know that, they know that, but they need to keep pressing. When you fail to catch the bad guy sometimes you need to go back to square one and start over again with the investigation. Unfortunately, we’re square one.” Angela laid it out clearly, and everyone nodded.

“There’s a stigma attached to us now,” Kyoshi added, which surprised some of the group. “Not necessarily from our classmates or the HCP staff, but anyone outside our immediate acquaintances comes into our discussions with jaded thoughts and preconceived notions.”

“It’s human nature.” Mason knew a little something about preconceived notions growing up as a Super in NYC after Seif al-Din’s attack.

“It’s wrong,” Becca frowned.

“But it’s reality,” Anika countered, but put her hand comfortingly on her girlfriend’s shoulder.

“It’s meaningless,” Angela put her foot down. “We go into the interviews and tell them what they want to know. We don’t leave anything out and we give them anything that could help them track down Seth. He turned his back on being a Hero, and instead of just chilling as a civilian, he became a villain. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. We help them catch him. He shouldn’t be coming to us as character witnesses when it comes time for his trail anyway.” With her piece said, Angela got up and walked away.

“What she said.” Anika followed behind her. Becca didn’t say anything, she just waved goodbye.

“Well, that went well.” Kyoshi leaned her head on Mason’s shoulder and watched the few students who remained in the building go about their business.

“Things aren’t the same as freshman year.” Mason stated plainly, but Kyoshi felt the conflict inside him.

She knew he didn’t think Seth was an evil villain, but that was hard to believe after everything that had happened. Still, it wasn’t her place to judge. People were entitled to their thoughts, and she shouldn’t be prying anyway. She withdrew from her boyfriend’s mind and closed her eyes. The rise and fall of his chest coupled with the thumping of his heart lulled her to sleep.

Previous

PCS to Eden – Live to Fight Another Day – Part 2

Michael did not feel particularly safe as the ground rumbled beneath him. From his height, he could see the beast approaching, and all the destruction that advance left in its wake. For the moment, the fighting between him, Lucifer, Gabriel, and Beelzebub had ceased. They were all watching the newest combatant calmly approach.

The leviathan’s tail casually swung back and forth as it walked. Michael watched as the spiked ball at the end, which was as thick as a tractor trailer was long, smashed through the side of Trump Tower a few blocks from the edge of the park. The monolith of steel and glass shuddered at the impact and rained down deathly shards on the thankfully-empty streets. The building didn’t crumble like others along the beast’s path, but it was in a precarious position as the leviathan’s footsteps continued to shake the earth as it advanced into the park.

“This is an interesting turn of events.” Lucifer observed with a slight smile on his face. After all, it was the fallen angel’s blast that had shook the bedrock of the city and awoken the long-slumbering giant.

For a fleeting second, Michael wondered if that had been the Infernal’s plan all along, but that second came and went as the leviathan stepped into the open space by The Pond on the south side of the park. Its intelligent eyes swept the open area, and when they rested the four Divine and Infernals, it roared.

The sonic power of the roar made Michael wince and cover his ears. The water of the pond picked up like a tsunami and crashed over its northern shore into the Hallett Nature Sanctuary. In an expression, animalistic to its core, the leviathan rose up on its two, thicker hind legs. For the first time in a millennia, Michael found himself craning his neck upward at a creature that stood over five hundred feet tall. It snapped its giant claws, and barred its fangs in their direction, a clear challenge from an alpha predator. Its second roar swatted helicopter ambulances from the sky miles away before it dropped back down onto four legs.

The impact shook the foundation of the island. Buildings for blocks, which had stood for over a hundred years, collapsed like they were sandcastles a child had kicked over during a temper tantrum. Michael even stumbled, and reached out to Gabriel for balance. The other archangel, still looking ragged from his fight with Beelzebub looked like he wanted to be anywhere other than here.

“So, what do we do now?” Lucifer asked nonchalantly, like he was asking where they wanted to go to brunch. It was a dramatic shift in attitude, but Michael understood why.

They’d both fought a leviathan before.

The leviathans were Cronus’ most deadly creations. They were built like tanks. They were designed to take a pounding and give a pounding in return. The natural armor they were born with would protect them as well as Divine Steel would, and they had many offensive attributes, some that you wouldn’t see until they unleashed them. Michael had experienced that all firsthand during the War for Eden, but with one difference. The leviathan he’d faced had been only half the size of this one. This one had survived the war, and been growing ever since. If left undisturbed, and with sufficient food, Michael had no doubt the massive creature would have rolled out of the river one day and flattened the better part of Manhattan by just rolling out of its watery bed. It was a threat that needed to be eliminated, Michael was just unsure if it was possible under the current circumstances.

His eyes drifted from the massive beast to Lucifer and Beelzebub. He could tell the two Infernals were thinking the same thing. The four of them together could probably take their colossal opponent, but not all of them would make it out alive. Once one of them went down on one side, it was just as likely that the other would turn on the remaining Infernal or Divine and take them down without the leviathan’s help. It would be hard enough winning this fight as a coherent fighting force, but when you were worried about half the people stabbing you in the back, there was no way to win.

<Maybe if we had more archangels.> Michael considered, but doubted God would pull them from their duties around the cosmos. New York wasn’t their only battlefield.

While Michael considered, the leviathan’s mind was already made up. It stepped over The Pond with a single stride and advanced toward them. Half a dozen more and it would have crossed the park to their position. They needed to think fast, and if anything, The Prince of Lies was quick on his feet.

A brilliant light flashed out from Lucifer towards the advancing beast. The same blast that had cut through buildings and into the bedrock of the planet, like a hot knife through butter, smashed into the leviathan’s shoulder. The beast roared, not in pain but annoyance, as the blast ricocheted off at an angle. The Upper East Side took the brunt of the blast as it melted steel and burned through the wealthy area. A quick look at the leviathan’s shoulder showed a smoking section of its armored flesh. If Michael had to guess, it looked a little pink, but other than that there was no discernable damage.

That was about all the time he had to think before the beast was on them. The Divine and Infernals scattered. Gabriel dove to the side to avoid a swipe by claws, and landed hard with an oomph that Michael heard. Lucifer took to the air quicker, smaller blasts of energy raked the leviathan’s side. The beast shrugged off the blasts as it focused on Beelzebub. The Lord of All that flies screeched and spun away. Feathers, that hit with the kinetic force of missiles, fired from the Infernal’s body and struck the leviathan across the face. The beast grunted, but followed up with a surprisingly quick slash of his front claw in Beelzebub’s direction. The sting of feathers might have temporarily blocked the leviathan’s line of sight, but the Infernal clearly wasn’t expecting something so big to move so fast.

Beelzebub’s screech of rage turned to one of pain as the claw dug into one of his wings and pulled. It was either be pulled toward the deadly, massive creature, or make a sacrifice. Beelzebub made the smart choice. The leviathan pulled one way, Beelzebub pulled the other, and the wing tore down the middle. Blood the consistency and smell of tar poured from the wound like a river, but Beelzebub continued to back pedal out of range. He’d learned his lesson.

As the leviathan attacked, Michael saw an opportunity. He’d dived out of the way like everyone else, but he came out of the evasive maneuver with his shield up and sword at the ready. The opening was there when the beast was occupied with tearing off Beelzebub’s wing, so Michael attacked. He sprang forward using his powerful legs, and a flap of his wings, to gain momentum. He committed to the attack, brought his sword high, and then caught sight of something unusual on the back of the leviathan’s head.

The beast’s neck had a thicker collection of scales to protect a naturally weaker part of the body, they flared out slightly due to this, and that design caught the eye and caused Michael initially to miss something else. At the base of the creature’s skull, right before the flared area of the neck, were a set of three round spots that didn’t match the rest of the body. As Michael sprang to drive his sword into the beast, the three round spots snapped open and zeroed in on him.

<It literally has eyes in the back of its head.> Michael thought a split second before the beast pivoted.

It pivoted away from Michael’s attack and toward the retreating Lucifer, which surprised Michael for a second, before he felt the whoosh of air that accompanied something large being swung. As the leviathan pivoted, its rear eyes continued to track Michael. A moment before it happened, he saw them squint, and imagined a smile on the beast’s face.

In his defense, Michael was able to get his shield into position before the spiked ball at the end of the leviathan’s tail smashed into him with the force of a small nuke. The shockwave of the impact flattened anything in the area that wasn’t already burning or broken, but the archangel wasn’t paying much attention to that. The spikes on the tail smash through his shield, into and through his breastplate. For the first time in millennia, Michael felt his blood being spilled as the air was knocked from his lungs, and consciousness tried to slip from his grasp. He must have blacked out for a second, because the next thing he felt wet from his shoulders down. The coolness felt good, but it stung as it entered his wound.

Michael blinked and tried to restore his vision, but everything was swimming. His body felt heavy as he tried to life his limbs, like his brain wasn’t quite getting the message to his appendages. Aether rushed in to heal him, but even then it took a little time. As his vision began to clear, he wished it didn’t. It showed a scene of chaos and destruction. A chunk of the Upper East Side from Central Park to the East River had been carved out. Michael reached his hand under him to hoist himself up, but his hand hit dry land. He looked over his shoulder and realized from the shoulders up he was lying on Roosevelt Island, while the rest of his body lay partially submerged in the river. The leviathan had turned him into a Divine missile, fired him through the Upper East Side, and only the water and shore of Roosevelt Island had stopped his forward progress.

<Save Gabriel.> The voice in his head was not his own.

<Father.> Michael looked around, hoping against hope that God would enter the fray.

His father was not present, but he repeated his order. <Save Gabriel. The city is lost. Reconsolidate in the boroughs and live to fight another day.> There was an echo of defeat in God’s voice, so Michael dared not question his orders.

Michael’s eyes swept across Manhattan and saw the truth in his father’s words. Midtown and the Upper East Side were almost completely destroyed. Lower Manhattan was in chaos with the East Village slowly being consumed by fires. Parts of the island were untouched, but human avarice would lead to looting, rape, and murder for weeks to come. A hefty chunk of the police, firefighters, and paramedics would be dead, and in a city of over eight million people the remaining ten thousand first responders wouldn’t be able to make a dent.

<But the Amazons will.> Rage gripped Michael’s heart for a second before he calmed himself.

The Amazons would be left unscathed, because unlike the Divine and Infernals, the leviathan was essentially their cousin. It would recognize its common heritage with the Amazons and leave them be. With their Divine warden’s exiled from the city, the Amazons would assert control with money, influence, or through force. They would breed, and in the process murder many human males on the island.

It took a few seconds, but Michael realized what his father had in mind. This had evolved into a quarantine, which explained why Michael had been given orders to have Ava and her forces evacuate VIPs that God wanted kept safe.

<But if this is a quarantine that means…> Michael grimaced at what the near future held. The Divine Host would need to come in force and then retake the island. God would not allow the cancer the Amazons represented, or the danger of the leviathan, remain for long.

Michael slowly pulled himself from the river and looked for his brother. Gabriel was nowhere to be seen, which meant he was hiding. He’d probably gone insubstantial, and was evading the leviathan, or Amazons, or both.

<Ava,> Michael called out through the æther. <I have another mission for you.>

Previous                           Next

Hailey’s Tale – Part 5

Hailey only had two days left, and she knew she’d procrastinated long enough. She wasn’t naïve when it came to the things PFH did to keep the money flowing. After all, she’d gone through the AP curriculum, and studied some of their more famous operations. Men, no matter how big or small, were accountable to PFH when they handled their products. The problem was…this one was personal.

<It’s genius,> she thought for the millionth time as she strolled down the familiar PHA streets.

PFH wanted their people dedicated to the organization, but even the most dedicated person had old ties that always held them back. Even if those ties were a galaxy away. What this mission did was eliminate Hailey’s ties. With Jimmy’s brains already sanitized from an alley a kilometer from where she walked, and Coop on a different planet, hitting Mr. Cooper was the logical choice. It was wickedly clever, but the mission also hoped for more practical outcomes. The building’s militia, of which Mr. Cooper was a ranking member, had banned the PFH from doing business in their tower. Normally, Asset Protection, or some bribed or hired force, would settle the issue, but in this particular PHA’s case the cost benefit analysis stated it just wasn’t worth the extra effort.

Hailey was surprised that PFH and their competitors weren’t allowed to operate in her old home. She’d heard Mr. Cooper through the thin walls with a variety of other women when she’d been with Coop. Apparently, they wanted to be there and weren’t paid for their services. However, now that AP had a trainee from the same block, it only made sense for her to open up the new revenue stream for the organization.

Madame Desroisiers and Madame Sourd had even sweetened the pot. They’d promised Hailey a five percent bonus of the organization’s earnings over their first twelve months of operations. That could translate into thousands of dollars in Hailey’s pocket if things went well. That made her smile slightly, but didn’t completely assuage her guilt.

“Pigs on your left.” The woman strolling next to her stated.

According to AP standard operating procedure, you didn’t operate alone unless absolutely necessary. Four eyes were better than two, and four hands could carry four guns. Sometimes you needed firepower when dealing with some pissed off competing pimp. Assistant Instructor Weiss was assessing Hailey’s performance on this mission. The beautiful PFH operative was somewhere between Hailey and Madame Sourd on the hierarchy, but Hailey didn’t know anything about the other woman other than she was an active AP agent. Hailey hadn’t seen Weiss before their meeting twenty eight days ago.

Hailey and Weiss were both disguised in dirty PHA rags common among Rats. Hailey would have worn her old clothing if they’d still fit, but the enhancements made that impossible. The enhancements also made blending in among the other Rats difficult. Hailey was a healthy, athletic, competent woman now, and that just didn’t translate well into a PHA Rat. It was hard not to be confident when she knew she could take down most people in this dump.

She thought of the PHA as a dump now. A dump full of weak people not strong or smart enough to get their shit together. It made her sick to think that she’d been like this less than a year ago. That thought was her primary motivation for ending Walter Cooper. She needed to end this chapter in her life and move on to the next. Those old ties the PFH was targeting would hold her back if she let them, which is why she was going to succeed with her mission.

The hover car the police drove by slowed slightly as it passed Hailey and Weiss. Hailey was hunched over, and had grime smeared over her face. Weiss, who was naturally shorter, didn’t have to slouch, but she’d employed a slight limp which hid the otherwise predatory grace she usually moved with. They’d also rubbed crap all into her vibrantly blonde hair to the point it gave a whole new meaning to the term dirty blonde.

Evidently, their tradecraft worked because the cops continued on their way. Hailey knew they needed to keep moving or they’d become targets themselves, but she felt a surge of pride that her countermeasures had successfully disguised them.

“Focus.” Weiss noticed her distraction and pulled her back on task. The woman didn’t speak much, and the few words she did speak were instructions or warnings.

PFH had spent a lot of time and money training Hailey. They weren’t going to let her crash and burn on her first mission. It was hard for Madame Desroisiers to write off a disaster like that, but she would if she had to. Weiss was only accompanying Hailey to the front entrance. After that, she was on her own.

Weiss peeled off about a hundred meters away and went to the rendezvous point in the mouth of a nearby alley. She’d stage there until Hailey completed the mission, or was killed. Hailey knew Mr. Cooper well enough to know he’d put a bullet in her head if she thought he was there to kill him. Her job was to not give him the opportunity.

She walked up to the building’s entrance like she had a million times over her eighteen years. <Or is it nineteen now?> She had no idea if her birthday had passed. She was just too busy to notice.

She recognized a few of the guards manning the doors and scanning people. Most of the residents they knew by sight. Hailey had always been able to walk right by.

“You, stop.” The guard didn’t yell it, but Hailey glanced over and saw him pointing right at her.

She involuntarily tensed, and then cursed herself for the reaction. It only made her look guilty, so as the guard approached her, she forced herself to relax.

“Give me your print,” the guard demanded.

If the guards couldn’t identify a resident then they took a fingerprint of the individual to verify residency. Hailey knew this from the mission briefing and personal experience.

“Come on,” she complained weakly to the guard while providing her thumb.

Before putting her thumb on the scanner, the guard spit on the polyplast surface to clean it. Dirt and grime had collected around the edges for a decade or more, but the building’s few tenants who knew anything about electrical engineering would keep the small device running until it fell apart. It wasn’t like the PHA bureaucrats were going to buy them a new one.

Hailey tried not to gag as she put her finger on the still damp polyplast, but then firmly told herself to woman the fuck up. She’d lived in this place for eighteen years. A few months on a comfortable bed with smartcloth clothes and studying to be a high-priced hooker/assassin had made her soft.

While she was chiding herself, the scanner beeped green and the guard nodded for her to go ahead. Hailey wondered if PFH had grabbed her in the first place because they wanted to get to Walter. The fact that she was still registered in the building’s databanks indicated that the rent for her room was still being paid to the PHA. Even while she was in training, PFH had been planning for this day and laying the ground work. It was an expensive plan, and it was Hailey’s job to make it work.

Instead of taking the elevator, Hailey took the stairs up to the fifth floor. She’d taken the route hundred of times, but now she saw potential ambush sites, good fields of fire, and potential profit. Just because the PFH and others weren’t allowed in the building didn’t mean the world’s oldest profession wasn’t alive and well. It was just handled in house, and the stairwell was a well-known congregating area. Hailey passed more than one guy getting a blowey, but no one even stopped as she passed. The guys probably paid by the minute, and when you didn’t have a lot of cash you didn’t wait for a stranger to pass so you could get your rocks off.

She exited the stairwell and walked the twenty-five meters to Walter Cooper’s apartment. She only hesitated for a second before hitting the buzzer. While she waited, she brushed her hair out of her face so Walter could see her.

The doctors at PFH had done significant modification to Hailey. Modification that had taken months to heal and get accustomed to, but one thing they didn’t mess with was her face. They highlighted her cheekbones and made sure everything was symmetrical, but compared to the rest of her that was minimal. What that allowed was for anyone that used to know her to still identify Hailey Armstrong.

The screen next to the door activated and Walter Cooper’s face appeared. “What the hell do you…?” He abruptly stopped the tirade he’d been working up to. “Hailey…?” She saw his eyes widen a bit.

“Hey, Mr. Cooper. Long time no see.” She smiled bashfully at the screen and hoped it lowered his guard.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, his guard not fully lowered.

“I thought I owed you an explanation for where I went. I just kind of disappeared on you.” She went into the speech she’d rehearsed, but Walter cut her off.

“You don’t owe me anything.” He started to shut down the feed, and she panicked a little.

“Wait!” Thankfully, Walter didn’t disconnect. “You’re right that I don’t owe you shit, but I at least wanted to pass along info to Coop if he calls. I know it’s a one in a million shot, but if he ever comes back here on leave then I want him to know where to find me.” The sincerity in her voice surprised her, but it only helped sell her story. “Can I come in for two minutes? Then I’m out of your hair forever.”

Walter’s eyebrows narrowed, and she wasn’t sure she’d convinced him. “Show me your hands.”

Hailey acted perplexed, but opened up to show both her hands were empty. Walter disconnected, and there was a moment where nothing happened, where Hailey thought she’d failed, but then there was a hiss as the environmentally-sealed apartment opened up and Walter stood in front of her.

“Keep your hands where I can see them. You’ve got one minute and then…” Walter never got to finish. There was a slight cough as Hailey fired a snub-nosed pistol concealed on her person, and the 1mm dart hit Walter right in the gut.

The old hardass looked more angry than surprised as the weapon pulverized a chunk of his intestine. He fell back, his hand over his wound as Hailey darted inside and hit the button to seal the door.

She knew a cautious man like Walter would be looking for weapons, even on her, so Hailey had come up with a plan. It wasn’t hard to get a prosthetic arm and attach it to her shoulder. With a small silicone chip, the arm could do just about anything she wanted it to, so it was easy to ensure it would open up to show Walter she wasn’t carrying a weapon; when in fact her real arm was hidden below the layers of garments and carrying the small, close-range pistol.

<Thank god for Buffalo’s cold weather.> Her plan wouldn’t have worked in another month or so.

The pistol was notoriously inaccurate outside of twenty-five meters, but it was more than capable of doing the job when you were up close and personal. PFH wanted it done up close and personal, and they’d equipped Hailey with a small camera to record her first kill for the organization.

“God damn that stings like pissing when you’ve got the clap,” Walter coughed and laughed at the same time. Bloody spittle flew into the air.

<The dart must have ricocheted off a rib and went into his lung.> That would explain the bloody cough, but it also meant the old man would suffocate as his lungs filled with blood. Hailey was here to kill Walter, not let him die slow and painful.

She leveled the pistol at his head but didn’t pull the trigger. Her hand shook as Walter turned up to looked her right in the eyes.

“It’s harder than it looks on the holo, right.” He grinned to reveal blood-stained teeth. “But you need to finish the job girl. Put on your big girl panties and get it done.”

Despite herself, Hailey laughed. “You know you’re asking me to kill you.”

“I’m already dead.” It was then that she realized that Walter wasn’t even trying to cover up the wound in his gut. His arms were hanging limply at his side as blood poured from his abdomen.

<The dart didn’t ricochet off a rib. It hit his spine.>

Walter Cooper was paralyzed and bleeding to death.

“Just one question though. What outfit did you sign up with? Local gang…cops finally decided they wanted to off me…syndicate?” Hailey nodded at the last one. “Ahh…Putinski then.” Walter nodded when Hailey didn’t say anything. “They’re some ruthless bitches. Don’t forget to cover your own ass with them. If you aren’t careful the long dick of Asset Protection will fuck you just as hard as the johns you’ve got to service.”

“I am Asset Protection.” Hailey shot back.

“Well…shit…good for you kid. So what are waiting for? Protect your…” Walter didn’t get to finish before Hailey raised the weapon again and blew a hole through his forehead and scattered his brains all over the entryway.

The tremor in her hand was gone, and so was the old Hailey Armstrong. All that was left was an Asset Protection agent for Putinski Family Holdings.

After today, she’d receive her final grade, graduate from the program, and be assigned to any of the organization’s many establishments throughout human space. As Hailey exited the building, and the cold wind hit her, she wished for someplace warm. She didn’t know if Madame Desroisiers would grant her request, but once all was said and done she got what she wanted. She was assigned to New Savannah where she’d spend more months honing her skill in the field.

And then one night her past caught up to her.

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PCS to Eden – Live to Fight Another Day Part 1

If there was any bright side to the apocalyptic catastrophe that had befallen New York, it was that the Infernal’s attack had stalled. The Brooklyn Bridge was destroyed behind her, and Beelzebub’s Infernal Generals didn’t seem keen on advancing closer to the beast that had just crawled out of the river. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t any fighting.

Ava tucked her wings in and dropped a few feet. The axe sang as it passed over her head, but it was quickly drowned out by the screams of the Infernal as she cleanly chopped off its legs just below the hip. Even though the creature’s wings were still operable, it still dropped to its death out of shock and blood loss.

She flared her wings to stop her own descent, pivoted with a powerful flap that sent a gust of air to knock her next attacker off course, and used her core muscles to snap the edge of her other wing around. She’d been steadily funneling power into her wings since before the battle began, so the white feathers were stronger than steel and hit like a sledgehammer. The Infernal trying to sneak up behind her took the blow right to the temple and dropped to the ground, but was dead long before he hit it.

“Bart, report!” she had a moment to breathe.

“We’re finishing the cleanup now.” Bart replied, his voice traveling through the æther so it seemed he was standing right next to her. It was an effective, uncrackable form of communication in battle; an angel radio that was hardwired into their very existence by God.

“I need you to shift north east when you’re finished. Leave a small force to cover our flank, but bring everyone else. Stage at Seward Park off East Broadway, I can’t tell yet if they’ll counter across the Manhattan or Williamsburg Bridge, but that’ll put the majority of troops in the best position to respond. We’ll set up phase lines when you arrive.” She cut the ætherial line and rotated to get a clear view of the battlefield.

The beast was still advancing toward Central Park, which had gone suspiciously quiet over the last few minutes, but the three-hundred-foot tall creature more than made up for it. It’s hundred plus foot tail snaked out behind it as it advanced and whipped back and forth. The same tail that had taken down the Brooklyn Bridge smacked into apartments, skyscrapers, and anything else that stood in its way. Large chunks of buildings went flying as more crumbled in its wake. Thankfully, Midtown had largely been evacuated after the fight in Central Park started, but she still sensed humans dying by the dozens in the beast’s advance.

“Ava!” The call came in over angel radio. The urgency in the tone was something she’d rarely heard from her commanding officer. “Our priority now is evacuation,” Michael ordered.

The sudden change of mission started Ava. “Sir, we’ve got them pushed back. We could…”

“We can’t do anything with a leviathan here,” the stress was palpable in the statement. “You need to get the Mayor out now. Get his aides if you can, but the Mayor has priority. He’s important.”

The last word held subtext that Michael wasn’t willing to relay, but Ava got the gist. Humanity talked about God’s Plan and the concept of predestination at length. As an angel, one would think Ava had more insight into the matter, but that wasn’t true. She didn’t know any better than Joe Schmo down at the local deli if God had planned everything out already, and was just watching it play out. Archangel’s like Michael seemed to be a little more in the loop, but Ava was sure the big guy kept a lot of things to himself; especially after the Rebellion.

Whatever the truth was, Ava had sat next to, and been comforted, by her Father. She didn’t believe everything was already prechosen. She believed people had free will to act as they pleased, and those actions led to the karmic cycle that deposited a soul in Heaven, Hell, or reincarnated it back onto Earth. However, she knew her Father well enough to know he didn’t leave things completely up to chance. He had ringers in the mix; wise old souls that had spent lifetimes gathering knowledge, experience, and a better sense of their fellow man. Although the souls couldn’t actively tap into their past life experiences, something one could call wisdom tended to leak through into their current form of existence. God liked to make sure those people were looked over so they could move Eden toward the paradise he believed it could be one day. Apparently, one of those people was the mayor of New York City.

Ava didn’t know much about politics aside from the basics. She’d seen systems rise and fall for centuries, so one didn’t hold any more meaning to her than another, but she’d heard good things about the current mayor. He was a staunch moderate; a pillar of strength that modern Americans could relate to across both parties, especially in a climate of where political extremes caught all the headlines. If Ava had to wager a guess, she believed her father had big plans for the man. With a little luck, and Divine influence, maybe those plans were presidential.

At the moment, all those big plans were ‘what ifs’ if she didn’t get him out of the city and away from whatever had Michael so nervous. “Roger that,” she didn’t argue. “Bart, finish staging the troops and then hand over command to another Dominion. I need you to rally on me with a squad of your best.”

“Roger that.” She noticed Bart didn’t contradict her as much as she’d done to Michael. That begged some self-reflection at a different time.

It took a few heartbeats for her to cross the space between where she’d been viewing the battlefield to City Hall, which was a stone’s throw from the now-defunct Brooklyn Bridge. Bart met her there a few seconds later with eight guardians who looked like they’d seen better days. Their armor was scratched, dented, chipped, and covered in blood.

<We’re going to make the mayor crap himself.> Ava shook her head before summoning a little of her power to clean up the guardians, Bart, and herself. Their armor was still scratched, dented, and chipped, but they didn’t look like they’d just come from a slaughter.

“We’re extracting the mayor and anyone else if necessary, but the mayor is priority.” She relayed Michael’s instructions, and heads nodded all around her. “We need to go in soft.” Everyone understood that.

The small group began to shrink down to normal human-size and went insubstantial to avoid drawing attention from the enemy. None had penetrated all the way to City Hall, but complacency tended to get people killed, and Ava had seen enough death today.

New York’s City Hall was palatial and had been around since 1812. It was a long time for a human building, but not a lot for an angel. It sat across the street from the headquarters of the NYPD, so it was one of the first buildings to be locked down and secured once the attack began. Over a hundred officers stood guard around the building and helped direct people toward safety. They all carried rifles or shotguns with pistols on their hips. The NYPD had broken out the heavy artillery for today, but Ava knew it wouldn’t nearly be enough.

The squad of angels descended past snipers on the rooftop calling out enemy positions. They didn’t really differentiate between Ava’s guardians and the invading Infernal, and she couldn’t blame them for that. All they saw were giant mythological creatures attacking their city. To them, everything was a threat until it wasn’t. The squad passed effortlessly down through the roof, through empty council chambers, and to the main floor. More police in tactical gear were trying to get people to safety, but others were standing guard.

“There is an emergency operations center in the basement,” Bart informed. “It was installed after nine-eleven so they could manage all the city’s resources and communicate with federal authorities if another terrorist attack, or other emergency, happened again.”

“I’d call this an emergency.” Ava walked forward, past the two burly officers guarding a door that lead downstairs. The whole squad passed between the guards unseen.

A staircase led down to another set of guarded doors, that lead to a hallway with a third set of guards and some legitimate security doors. These ones looked like they required biometric access, and the guards probably didn’t have it, but Ava didn’t need it. She passed right through the steel vault-like barrier, and came face to face with a different type of guard. A single guardian angel stood alertly on the inside of the door. That confirmed Ava’s theory about the mayor’s importance. A person didn’t get assigned a personal guardian unless her Father had big plans for them.

The guardian stood by the shoulder of the man at the center of the organized chaos in the room. Banks of computer screens lined the walls and were manned by the men and women of the NYPD’s cyber division. Their fingers flew over the keyboards as they dispatched the leader’s orders to thirty-thousand officers deployed across the city.

“We can’t put anything in the monster’s path, Mr. Mayor.” A big man in a suit, with a NYPD, and American flag pin, wasn’t going to budge on whatever the mayor wanted. Judging by the frequency senior cops came up to him, Ava was guessing he was the Police Commissioner.

“We can’t abandon those people.” The mayor gazed at the biggest screen in the room, which seemed to be distant drone footage of the leviathan’s advance. “We can’t get a better picture?” It was clear the mayor was trying to keep the frustration out of his voice.

“The creature is throwing off electromagnetic interference.” The police commissioner shrugged when the mayor raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m not the scientist; I’m just telling you what they told me.”

“And the angels in the park?” The mayor asked, shifting to another picture of Michael, Gabriel, Beelzebub, and Lucifer in Central Park. The latest addition was new to Ava, and explained some of the stress in Michael’s voice.

<Two archangels, two Infernal Lords, and an ancient leviathan… They could take down half the eastern seaboard if this gets ugly.> Ava cringed, but focused back on her mission.

“Sir,” another suited man, handsome, but nowhere near as broad as the commissioner spoke up. “I can’t stress enough that you shouldn’t be calling those giants in the park angels. The official terminology is Unidentified Giant, or UG. Calling them angels is going to offend the religious and atheist vote. One because they don’t believe in them, and the other because they won’t believe they could be doing these horrible things.”

<Political advisor,> Ava couldn’t stop a grin from forming. <Well…time to prove him wrong.>

She phased back into reality along with the rest of her squad, which had spread out across the room. It took about two heartbeats for the mayor and his advisors to realize they weren’t alone, and then the screaming started.

The commissioner whipped out an old six shooter with surprising agility for someone with so much white in his hair, but his booming voice still held the authority of a man who’d faced down rioters in the seventies and eighties. “Drop the fucking gu…sword!” he corrected himself quickly as he leveled his pistol at Ava. He correctly assumed, but her position in the center of the squad, that she was the leader.

“Nobody move.” She communicated to her squad on the ætherial bandwidth the humans couldn’t hear. She let the humans scream themselves hoarse.

They understood the amount of unknowns in the situation and didn’t want to escalate. Ava just wanted them to cool down a notch so they didn’t accidentally open fire and hit the mayor with a ricochet. After about thirty seconds of yelling things started to settle down, and confusion took over. That was Ava’s cue. She slowly reached up to her helmet and removed it. Putting a recognizable face in front of the humans would help deescalate the situation.

A few male eyes widened when they saw her beautiful, yet very human, face behind the armor. At their core, the men and women in this room were wired to protect others. They weren’t going to open fire on a woman, even if she was wearing armor, had wings, and was carrying a sword.

“Mayor Poole.” Ava smiled and nodded to the man. “My name is Ava. I am an angel of God, and I am here to keep you safe.”

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Hailey’s Tale – Part 4

Ten Months Later

The instructor walked out and handed Hailey a piece of metal and polyplast. Hailey immediately did a weapons check to make sure the safety was activated and the chamber was clear. It wasn’t. Hailey popped out the round, and the instructor gave an approving nod. In the last ten months of training, Hailey had grown accustomed to the mind games her instructors liked to play. They’d throw a wrench into the most routine task every once and a while. It all reinforced their mantra of adaptability.

She was not that same Hailey that had entered the academy ten months ago; physically or mentally. Like any organization that was seriously investing in its employees, Putinski Family Holdings wanted to make her better. She’d been given a series of enhancements based on her career track. She’d gone from 165 to 181 centimeter and put on fifteen kilos as the procedures reinforced muscular and skeletal structures, but she wasn’t some heavy infantry solider like in the holos. Her carrier still needed for her to be a lean, mean, sex machine, so she’d only been upgraded to what a world with 120% Earth-normal gravity would have. She was now stronger than average, but couldn’t take on someone with serious enhancements. Overall, strength was not the objective of her upgrade. The objective was speed.

Everything about her had been designed to be faster than normal. Her cognition, reflexes, fast-twitch muscles fibers, and just about everything else in her body had been heightened. She couldn’t punch through polyplast walls like some people, but she could draw a pistol with the galaxy’s best gunslingers. Or get a guy off. Rumor was that the enhancement was a similar one to what they gave fighter pilots in the military, but with a few proprietary tweaks.

For Hailey, the operation itself wasn’t hard to get through, but the recovery was. It was tough for her mind to grasp how everything around her moved a little slower than it did before. If her adrenaline started pumping, and her fighting reflex took over, stuff around her almost seemed to slow to a crawl. It was surreal, and a true mind fuck. Coping with that while still keeping up with all of her course work was a real challenge; especially for someone who was not academically inclined. Luckily, the academy had a fix for that.

Madame Desroisiers hadn’t been kidding during that first meeting. She said their clients wanted more than a pair of perky tits and a firm ass. Sure, everyone at the academy was instructed in the arts of seduction, reading body language, the whole ‘come hither’ shebang, as well as a thorough course on the Kama Sutra, but there was a lot more to this career than that. Their clients wanted intelligent women they could actually have a conversation with before taking them to the bedroom. The academy educated their students on all the big topics: politics, economics, social issues, and military matters. Some took to classroom learning and had a slightly longer tenure at the academy to get legitimate degrees in their courses of study, but most, like Hailey, weren’t those types of learners. That was what data dumps were for.

Through visual cerebral programming the academy was able to dump a chunk of knowledge into a person’s brain. It was an extremely uncomfortable procedure, that left the student with a two-day migraine, but it got the job done. On top of being uncomfortable it was also controversial. Legitimate universities screened for people who’d received data dumps because they saw it as cheating on top of being a health risk. There were neurological markers to indicate if a person had the procedure which didn’t dissipate. On top of that, just having the procedure didn’t mean the knowledge stayed around, and there was no guarantee against side effects of having knowledge unnaturally poured into your brain.

Hailey underwent monthly health scans that would continue for the duration of her time with PFH. At first, she’d thought the data dumps would stop her from doing any work, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Data dumps fell into that ‘if you don’t use it you lose it’ category. You couldn’t just dump foreign information into your brain and retain it without work. So, despite having a Master’s degree’s worth of military and economic knowledge uploaded to her mind, she still had nightly retention homework she needed to complete. For Hailey, that just meant having to buckle down and study after an exhausting day of her specialty focus. She was a proud member of the AP track, and that didn’t stand for advanced placement.

Asset Protection (AP) was the reason Madame Sourd had singled her out at the audition for cutting off the junkie’s dick. Madame Sourd was the head AP instructor at the academy, and she saw something in Hailey. Something Hailey herself didn’t see. Now it was ten months of training later, and Hailey had to show what she’d learned.

The instructor tossed her a magazine for the weapon and walked out of the large, plain white room. Hailey inserted the magazine into the weapon and checked the readout. <Twenty rounds.> That wasn’t a lot, and it immediately set off her internal alarms.

“Your mission is to eliminate all hostiles until your pick up arrives in…eight minutes.” The instructor’s voice announced over an unseen speaker. “Simulation beings in three…two…one…” The room dissolved around Hailey and was replaced by an alley you could find in any PHA on Earth.

The first thing to hit her was the smell. She doubted she would have noticed this a year ago, but she’d been living in a place with fresh air and where people routinely showered. Her nose had adapted faster than the rest of her to the luxury. With a gulp, she quickly pushed the nauseating aroma out of her mind and moved to find cover. The only thing in the alley was a dumpster with a big PROPERTY OF THE PUBLIC HOUSING AUTHORITY stamped on it. She put her back to the metal, ignored the sticky sensation, and waited. There was no countdown clock, but she’d learned to keep count in her head.

The muffled step of a person approaching was her first indication that something was wrong. If not for the wrapper the guy stepped on, he might have been on her before she knew it. She whirled around, everything seemed to sputter as her enhancements kicked in, and she brought the guy on target. He looked like any other Rat: dirty, dressed in rags, hungry, and pissed. Hailey put him out of his misery with a round through the heart. He crumbled to the ground and disintegrated as the simulation registered him as a kill.

<Nineteen,> she counted the expended round. <I need a better position.> The dumpster was in the center of the alley, which left her vulnerable to both sides, but at the same time, leaving the cover it provided would make her vulnerable.

A bottle sat next to her, so she picked it up and tossed it. The sudden motion drew out another PHA Rat. The crack of his chemically-propelled round resounded through the alley as he fired on the bottle. The bottle hadn’t even smashed against the far wall before Hailey had gone down to a knee and pivoted around the edge of the dumpster. The Rat noticed his mistake too late and tried to reacquire Hailey, but he moved like he was stuck in quicksand. It gave her plenty of time to put another round through his heart.

<Eighteen.>

She wheeled away from the dissolving man and sprinted toward the back of the alley where there would be better cover. A third man appeared around the corner less than ten meters from her. She immediately went into a slide, and felt the man’s bullet pass over her. The near miss made the hair on her neck stand up, but she didn’t let it get in the way of putting another round in the man. This one missed his heart due to her slide, but it blasted apart his throat, which the simulation registered as another kill.

<Seventeen.>

She got to the bend in the alley and looked for move cover. To her left was a dead end, and to the right was another opening to the street. Another smaller dumpster sat next to a building on the dead-end side, which she quickly dove behind. A round pinged off the metal just as she took cover. She recovered quickly, rose, and shot the shooter dead.

<Sixteen.>

She looked around for anything to give her a view of the alley without compromising her cover. There were no windows or reflective material she could see, so she grabbed another clear empty bottle, and smashed it on the ground. It didn’t give shit for details, but she could see if something started walking down the alley toward her.

In less than thirty seconds, a dozen figures appeared and rushed her. She knew the instructors wanted to see how she performed under pressure, and there was no better way to test that than when the bullets were flying. She dipped, dived, ducked and dodged in and out from her cover to get shots on the advancing Rats. She took out the ones running first, and then picked off the more cautious ones.

<At least there wasn’t any cover or concealment down that way.> Hailey thanked whoever built the simulation for that. She’d expended twelve bullets in the rush. It felt like an hour had passed, she’d lost count in her head, but it had to be over soon.  <Four rounds left.> She took beep breath to bring her heart rate back down.

The crunch of a man stepping on something brought her out from behind her cover to put another round through a man’s chest. No sooner had she done that, than a spike of pain and burning sensation spread through her left shoulder. She didn’t even notice the man taking cover behind the wall of the building blocking the second alley. The new Rat fired again, but Hailey had already spun away. The round impacted the building behind her and sent concrete chips flying painfully into her head, but she got a bead on the man and fired. He went down and dissolved.

Logically, she knew this was only a simulation, but that didn’t mean the pain in her shoulder was any less real. She tried to raise her other arm, and it didn’t respond while blood leaked down and dripped from her fingertips. She figured she had ten minutes before she started getting light-headed from blood loss and twenty before she passed out.

She looked around for anything to plug the wound, but nothing presented itself. She considered opening the dumpster, but a round pinging off the metal dissuaded her. She rose up and fired her second to last round. The Rat went down, and behind him, she saw a car pull up against the curb. That had to be her ride. She had one round left, so she assumed one more Rat was going to jump her, but she had to get to that car. She pushed off the ground at a run and hugged the wall.

Just as she thought, when she was halfway down the alley to her ride, a woman stepped out around the corner with a gun in her hand…and then a second person followed.

<Fuck!> Hailey only had one round left. She juked hard away from the wall when the first woman took her under fire. The speed of Hailey’s movement saved her life, but didn’t solve her problem. Fortunately, thinking fast was what she’d been trained to do.

A plan coalesced quickly, and she bet it only had a fifty percent chance of working, but that was better than being dead, so she went for it. The two women were reacquiring her, but Hailey got her shot off first. She aimed higher and blew the first woman’s head open in a shower of gore. Since the round itself had less to go through, it continued through her head and into the side of the building. Just like what had happened to Hailey, concrete chips flew off the building as the round made contact. The second woman, who was following closely behind the first woman for cover, got a face full of blood, brain, and concrete shrapnel. Those made her flinch as she pulled the trigger. Her round went high and impacted harmlessly against the wall above Hailey.

Hailey didn’t have time to marvel at how her plan had worked, because that was only step one. She still needed to disarm and eliminate the woman, and she was now out of ammunition. Thankfully, AP training had turned her body into a weapon. Hailey sprinted forward as the woman tried to rub the blood and grim from her face, lowered her good shoulder, and drove it into the woman’s chest. She was twenty percent tougher than the average human, so the other woman must have felt like she was steamrolled by an NFL linebacker. She bounced off the wall and collapsed in a heap, but Hailey didn’t let up. Aggression was the name of the game, and Hailey proved that by repeatedly bringing her foot down on the women’s neck and skull. On the third blow something crunched and the woman dissolved.

The car gave a beep of its horn, like the driver was an impatient cabby. Hailey gave it the finger, but walked over to it. She stuck the gun in her pocket before she hit the sidewalk, and used her free hand to cover up the wound and control the bleeding. She collapsed into the interior, and the simulation dissolved.

She was lying on the polished, white floor of the testing room. The sensors in her smartcloth deactivated and the pain vanished. She was still exhausted and wired at the same time from the simulation, but got up, controlled her breathing, and patiently waited for her grade.

“Pass…ninety-five percent,” the instructor stated.

Hailey didn’t let her disappointment show. <I killed twenty-one hostiles with twenty bullets. You’ve got to give me a break on getting shot.> But the grade was final, and ultimately it didn’t matter. Hailey had passed.

One of the walls dissolved to show Madame Sourd standing there expectantly with her arms crossed behind her back. Hailey knew that look, and she hurried to exit the room and report to the AP lead instructor. Once she reached the larger woman, Hailey fell into a respectful stance and waited for the woman to begin.

“I’ve seen worse,” the larger woman stated after a moment of silence. Then a grin pulled at her lips. “One more test and you will graduate the AP program.” She handed Hailey an old-fashioned manila envelope.

Hailey didn’t need an explanation. This was the logical next step. PFH needed to make sure she could make the leap from shooting holograms to shooting real flesh and blood. Whoever this was, they’d pissed off the wrong people, and Hailey was the organization’s response.

“You have thirty days to complete your mission. Your time starts now.” Madame Sourd stated before turning and walking away. The AP instructor was a woman of few words. She preferred her actions to do her talking for her.

Hailey hurried after her while pulling the information out of the envelope. She nearly tripped over her own feet when she saw who her target was. Staring back at her from the top sheet of paper was the smiling face of Walter Cooper.

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