PCS to Eden – Down the Rabbit Hole

If a human had been traveling as long as Gerry had they’d say they’d been doing it forever. The Infernals, Divine, Remnants, and whatever Gerry was had a very different interpretation of time and distance. For the majority of human existence, people hadn’t traveled much beyond their dwellings, small villages, and cities. Their world had been as far as the eye could see, which thanks to the curvature of the Earth, was maybe a dozen miles. Even today, with globalization at its height, a lot of humans had never left their hometown. More so, they were content with that decision.

While the gap between Infernal and humans interpretation of distance might be closing, their different interpretations of time would never be shared. A human lived maybe eighty years, and as medical advances continued they might increase that number two or three fold. Still, humans were mortal. They lived and they died while their æther was distributed according to God’s great plan that the Infernals had distorted. Even Gerry, a former mortal, viewed time vastly differently than a human.

So, when Gerry felt the ache in his wings, the cramping in his back, and was laboring to draw breath he knew he’d been flying forever. To make matters worse, Gerry didn’t understand why he was so tired. It was like the bad dream when you’re being chased by someone. No matter how hard you try you can’t run as fast as you know you can. It’s like you’re trapped in quicksand. That’s what it felt like. Every beat of his wings made Gerry feel like something was tugging at him, pulling him down, and expending a lot more energy than he knew it should.

Gerry’s plight wasn’t his alone. Gaius had faltered what felt like hours ago, and Gerry had been helping the gasping general. Normally, Gaius would have been mortified, but at the moment beggars couldn’t be choosers. One look down at the black, churning waves beneath them and the general didn’t complain.

Surprisingly, Pete seemed to be doing the best. He was tired, sweating, and every once and a while the shimmering air around him would falter like someone accidentally pulled the plug, but he always started back up before he dropped more than a dozen feet.

When push came to shove, Gerry knew they were screwed. They were long past the point of no return. If they didn’t find something soon, they’d all run out of energy, fall into the sea, and be devoured by whatever lurked in those dark depths.

“This was stupid,” Pete spoke up after several more hours of struggling. “We’re dead.”

“It was your idea,” Gerry huffed back.

“It was my idea to come down here, not to fly out to sea and be lost forever. I just got out of prison, and now I’m going to drown.” Pete sounded bitter, and Gerry couldn’t blame him.

“You’re all fucking idiots,” Jezebel stated flatly.

She was the only one who had no control over her fate, and ironically, would probably live the longest once they hit the water. She was near full strength, so she’d tread water for weeks if nothing came to eat her first.

Gaius looked like he wanted to say something, but didn’t have the energy. He was currently carrying the Infernal of lust, and he looked like he very much wanted to buck her off his shoulders and into the waves below. He also knew if he did that Gerry would kill him on the spot. Without the ability to really defend himself, Gaius took the approach that allowed him to live the longest, so he sucked it up and kept on flying.

Unfortunately, sucking it up can only get you so far. It felt like a few days went by before Gaius slipped into unconsciousness. Gerry caught him before he hit the water, and thankfully he did. He was pulling the general up when a giant shadow passed beneath them. Even against the black waves it clearly highlighted something huge swimming just beneath the surface. Gerry had not doubt whatever it was would have gobbled Gaius up like a mid-afternoon snack and ended the general’s two millennia of existence.

Pete was still flying, albeit slowly and a bit erratically as exhaustion took its toll. Gerry didn’t want to burden him with Jezebel and Gaius, so as the strongest, he took over. The next few hours were pure hell. Since they were already in Hell that was saying a lot.

Pain seared through Gerry with every movement, everything was cramping, it felt like the æther had abandoned him, and he didn’t know how long he could hold on. Sheer competitiveness and stubbornness kept him going until Pete finally passed out. The Remnant actually landed in the water before Gerry could rescue him. Thankfully, whatever massive creatures lurked in this sea didn’t appear.

Now, Gerry was carrying everyone. Pete was lying across his back between his wings. The old god was denser than he appeared which only made the situation worse. Add to that the awkward position Gerry had to carry him in, and it made muscles he never ever knew he had cramp, seize, and tear after a short amount of time. He carried Jezebel and Gaius in his arms, but their weight continued to drag him down. Failure was imminent, but Gerry pushed on.

When it happened, he almost missed it. Nothing before him had changed. It was black sea all the way to the horizon. The cloud cover was low, like an eternal fog that sought to obscure everything, so when the pillar of rock appeared out of nowhere Gerry almost ran headfirst into it.

He looked back behind him like he’d seen a ghost, and saw another pillar off to his right. He turned his head, his neck protesting the simple movement, and saw another pillar off to his left. He could see more in the distance, but as he looked straight ahead, he didn’t care about the mysterious, pop-up pillars.

In front of him was an island. The dark waved washed up against its muted, gray shore. Large boulders were piled high on the beach before the land sloped upward into a thin forest. Gerry had no idea how the trees could grow without any sunlight, but they were there. They were tall and spindly, with thinly covered branches. They might be there, but they were not thriving. In the distance, Gerry could see a mountain rising. It looked huge compared to the eternal flatness of the ocean Gerry had experienced in the lifetime of flying since he’d left Seere’s kingdom. He wanted to make it there, but his body failed him.

A jolt of pain went through his right wing before he lost all feeling. He tried to adjust with his remaining wing, but he was too tired and weak. He spiraled out of control and plummeted toward the beach. He did his best to avoid the boulders, but he wasn’t sure he succeeded. All he remembered was seeing gray before unconsciousness seized him.




Consciousness returned slowly. It started as a pinprick of light in his mind. Slowly, it expanded.

<Who am I? What am I? Where am I? Who elbow is in my spleen?> Those were the questions that consumed Gerry for the first few minutes. It was the memory that he’d undergone something like this before that brought everything flooding back.

“Ugh,” he groaned as he tried to push himself into a sitting position. His hands disappeared into the soft sand and he fell back on his face. He sputtered and spat out the coarse material before his hand found a nearby rock. It was much better.

It turned out Gaius was the one poking him in the spleen and it was his knee not his elbow. With great effort, Gerry turned and the general fell off his back and onto the sand. Gaius didn’t even grunt on impact. For a second, Gerry feared everyone else was dead. He did a quick check and found they all had pulses. They weren’t exactly strong, but everyone would live once they regained their strength.

It was at that unfortunate moment when Gerry realized he wasn’t healing. His exhaustion persisted, constant spells of dizziness threatened to return him to unconsciousness, and he couldn’t even get to his feet. All he could do was pull himself the short distance along the beach to a boulder. He put his back to it, tried to take a deep breath, and gauged his surroundings.

Everything looked like it had from the air. The beach tapered off and led into a forest. From his new vantage point he could definitely tell the trees looked sick. They reminded him of pine trees, but there were a lot of empty patches. He was looking at one of those empty patches when movement caught his eyes. The wind had blown and ruffled something down and to the right. When he refocused on the spot his body gave a weak jump of surprise. Something was standing there watching him.

It was partially covered by the shadows thrown by the trees. These shadows weren’t created by light. Everything about this place had a dark gray hue to it. The darkness just seemed to linger there, and whatever the figure was, it was a part of it. It looked humanoid, but it was wearing a thick, baggy cloak, so Gerry couldn’t see anything in detail. Some of Beelzebub’s blasphemous creatures were humanoid too, so Gerry didn’t put a lot of faith in a creature’s outline from a hundred yards away.

Fear gripped him for a moment as the thing started to approach, but he quickly realized he couldn’t do anything about it. What strength he had left had been zapped away when he’d crawled to sit by the boulder. He could barely lift his arms, and staying focused on the thing was hard enough.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t in a rush. It calmly picked its way through the boulders with a casual speed that said it knew the area well. When it finally reached Gerry, it came around from behind the boulder. The hairs on his neck stood up as he felt the thing’s presence over his shoulder but just out of sight.

“What have we hear?” There was a sharp intake of breath as the thing breathed in his scent. There was silence for a moment. “Interesting…” A rough hand grabbed Gerry by the collar of his clothing and started to pull him along.

Gerry reached out toward Gaius, Pete, and Jezebel, but they remained unmoving on the beach. Whatever this thing was it didn’t seem concerned with them. His hand fell limply to his side and his head lolled to the side as he lost consciousness.

The creature effortlessly dragging him noticed but didn’t care.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 225

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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


<It’s in my ass. I swear I can feel it squirming deeper to lay some eggs!> Coop had to fight with all his willpower not to reach back and yank out whatever was crawling into his crack.

He was in his CMU’s, not LACS, so the action was possible. However, if he’d been in LACS in the first place this wouldn’t be a problem. Sometimes he just didn’t understand what the officers and senior NCOs were thinking when they developed the training schedule.

{You ok over there?} A message appeared in Coop’s vision. He swiped his eyes left to clear the text, and started a reply.

{No. Why the fuck are we doing this? I’m HI, not some snake-eater, Force Recon, scout sniper. My job is to close with and destroy the enemy, not fuck around at a few thousand meters.} With a thought the message went off to its intended recipient…Eve.

{Maintain communications discipline.} A third and final message appeared from GYSGT Cunningham, and that ended the impromptu conversation.

It might have seemed like the mundane back and forth of grunts, but it was anything but. First, Coop and the rest of the SRRT team weren’t wearing any comms gear. They had on standard helmets to protect their head, but their HUDs weren’t active. This had been the first time since being brought out of their medically-induced comas that the team had used the Individualized Organic Router feature in a combat simulation. They’d only sent messages so far, but that only scratched the surface of what the IORs were capable of. The SRRT members just weren’t quite ready to be in each other’s heads just yet.

In fitting military fashion, their inaugural use had been one soldier bitching to another. It was a time-honored tradition from Alexander the Great to the great Mark Cooper. So far, the gear worked as advertised.

Not that Coop was happy about what they were doing at the moment. Just because he could communicate basically just by thinking at Eve didn’t make their training iteration any less shitty. It had all started out much better. After being brought out of their comas, and given a full day’s worth of medical poking and prodding, the SGM had them in the briefing room for their next training iteration.

“We’re doing a sniper stalk.” The team’s senior NCO’s words elicited a wide variety of reactions. Coop wondered what the hell that meant, while Eve perked up.

When push came to shove, Coop had enjoyed the first part of the training. They’d jumped out of a Spyder at five thousand meters and glided nearly twenty kilometers to their AO. Unlike everything else the team had done so far on New Savannah, this training was happening in one of the planet’s many tropical forests. Coop thought the change of pace would be nice from urban operations, and he’d been proven wrong within ten minutes of getting his boots on the ground.

He’d grown up in a cooler climate and didn’t have the best grasp on what a hot and damp place could do for the proliferation of insect populations. Today, he was learning that the hard way as the team’s first mission was to hump fifteen more klicks through the thick underbrush. Coop thought that had been hell, but then the real stalk began.

Their targets were life-like androids that were walking a predetermined perimeter at the objective. They were cheap, expendable, and best of all meant the SRRT team got to use live ammo. Along with the mechanical men were a cadre of system defense force and Commonwealth officers whose sole purpose in life was to identify the approaching snipers. Coop thought he’d be able to get to a good firing position in twenty minutes, take the shot, and be out of there in time for evening chow. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

They’d started the slow crawl to their selected firing positions two hours ago, and Coop had gone a grand total of seventy-five meters. He thought that was agonizingly slow, but according to the info he was getting from his IOR, he was the farthest forward member of his team.

<And now something is burrowing into my asshole to make a nice warm home for some newborn ass flies.>

Coop couldn’t take it anymore. As slowly as he could, he reached behind himself and gave his ass the best scratch of his short life. He felt stuff squish, and as much as the feel of dead bugs in his ass made him shiver, it was infinitely better than live bugs.

{Settle down, Cooper. I can see the vegetation moving around you.} The GYSGT was twenty meters behind him and fifty to the right. He wasn’t sure what firing position she was heading toward, but he was pretty sure he had the best one.

Fifty meters ahead there was a slight berm that would be a perfect place to position his rifle. Coop was grouped and zeroed on the weapon at fifteen hundred meters, but with a maximum range of four times that, all it proved was he could hit something at spitting distance. If Coop was honest with himself, he didn’t feel comfortable at anything more than eighteen hundred meters. His selected firing position got him to eighteen hundred fifty, and that would just have to do.

Slowly, he removed his hand from his ass and continued forward. He snaked forward an arm and pushed off with the opposite leg. As best he could, he avoided the giant mushroom plants that seemed to be popular in this section of the rain forest, and finished the movement. He’d gone maybe another half meter.

He heard the crunch of approaching boots and froze. The officers near the target location were keeping their eyes peeled, and would radio the walkers to check out suspected movement. If a walker stopped within three meters of him it was an automatic fail. If he shot at the target and missed, it was a fail. If he shot and hit the target, but his location was identified, it was a fail. To Coop, it seemed like a lot of ways to fail an exercise that could easily be accomplished with a well-coordinated indirect fire mission.

“Here?” The walker was close. Too close for comfort. “Negative. No sniper within three meters.”

If Coop had to guess, he was maybe eight meters from the walker. <That was a close one.>

{Slow down, Coop. Sit there for a few minutes before moving again, and break off at an angle. Pick a new firing position and adapt.} Eve sent his way. She was almost two hundred meters away, but the transmitter in his brain made it feel like she was right there with him. It was a little weird.

Slowing down was easier said than done. He remained motionless for about three minutes before some other critter from hell worked its way across his skin and started its way toward someplace warm where the sun didn’t shine. Either it was going to take up the mantle of burrowing to lay eggs, or it was going to eat whatever Coop had already killed. Either way, Coop lost.

It had only been a little over two hours, but Coop already knew he hated sniping. If it came down to this in the real world it would be an urban op, and he’d be a spotter. Eve and the GYSGT were better shots anyway. Coop was cool with pulling close security and relaying instrument readings to one of the women.

<Hot chow and a shower…hot chow and a shower…hot chow and a shower…> he repeated the manta to himself as he finally reached his firing position over an hour later. He knew he’d rushed it, but at this point he didn’t give a shit.

Slowly, or as slowly as someone who saw the light at the end of the tunnel could, Coop pulled the rifle from beneath him. He’d been crawling with it underneath him the whole way, but surprisingly it wasn’t disgustingly dirty. He cautiously brought it up to rest on the slight berm. He made sure the muzzle was clear, but left the mud on the barrel. Any camouflage he could manage was worth it.

With the high-tech Truthfinder scope bolted to the top of the rifle, Coop had more information at his fingertips than any other sniper in the history of warfare. He thought that would make the job easier, but Eve, the GYSGT, and the SGM had all told him that was bullshit. The tech only helped so much. Being a sniper was still an art. Personally, Coop thought it was bullshit, and the Rangers didn’t want one of their group’s specialties being usurped by lowly HI grunts.

<I guess we’ll find out.> Coop looked through the scope and got a good site picture.

The mission specified what target was assigned to what sniper, so Coop had to scan the area for his target. The androids were vaguely humanoid, but even from eighteen hundred and fifty meters he could make out the grooves and rivets of their design. Each one was color coded, and after a few minutes he spotted the one painted bright blue.

He didn’t engage right away. It was a moving target, which automatically made it harder to hit, and Coop wanted to map its patrol route first to see if it made any deviations. If the exercise’s planners wanted to make it a pain in the ass, they’d have it doing random routes and movements. Thankfully, whoever planned this out wasn’t a giant ass.

For ten minutes the android walked the same path, and Coop felt comfortable starting to set up his shot. While it walked the same route over and over again, Coop only saw a few times when he could reliably take the long shot. There were still trees and other androids that it crossed paths with, and he was sure shooting a different target was another way to fail.

{Alpha Four in position.} Coop sent once he was confident he could take the shot and hit the target.

{That was quick, Alpha Four,} the SGM responded. The senior NCO was doing his own stalk and was half a kilometer away and over two hundred meters behind Coop’s position. That was taking slow and steady to a whole new level. {Remember to check your externals, proper position, good trigger control, and proper breathing.}

The pointers had been drilled into Coop for the length of the training exercise and he was sick of hearing them. {Roger that.} He glassed the area one last time looking for anything out of the ordinary before settling in. His universe became a small square on his scope.

The Truthfinder was truly awesome. As Coop sighted where he was going to take the shot, the scope analyzed temperature, air density, and humidity for various terrain features along the bullets flight path. All of that data was uploaded and calculated into the firing solution. If it had been a farther shot, the curvature of the planet would be added to the calculation.

<Who said you needed to know physics to be a sniper?> Coop scoffed as he focused on his breathing.

From his previous observations, he had a five second window to take the shot. He was tempted to hit the rangefinder once more to verify the distance, but each time he used it was one more chance the spotters had to lock onto his position. The Truthfinder’s signals were supposed to be top notch, but the universe had a way of fucking with people when they least expected it. It had been eighteen hundred and fifty two meters before, and he needed to trust it to be the same again.

{Alpha Four preparing to fire.} He sent the last message to the SGM and GYSGT. If they were going to wave him off now was their last chance. They remained silent.

Finally, the android took a ninety degree turn along its patrol path and started to climb the small embankment. Its entire back was exposed to Coop, and this was the best time to take the shot. He breathed in…held it for a second…and…SNAP! The rifle had virtually no recoil, but Coop held it deathly still, like his life depended on it.

It was three of the longest seconds of his life before, {Hit. Lower back.} The SGM relayed the data being transmitted to him from the spotters and the android’s sensors.

The lower back surprised Coop. He’d been aiming for center of mass, and at less than nineteen hundred meters that was a big distance between what he was aiming for and what he hit.

<Step one down.> Coop knew taking the shot was only the first part of the mission.

He heard the crunching of boots and his heart fell. The walker was heading straight for him. Coop could only hope the man stopped more than three meters away. That hope was quickly dashed when the walker stopped nearly on top of Coop.

“Bingo!” The guy said, and Coop knew he’d failed.

“Fuck,” Coop hissed as he got to his feet.

{Alpha Four. Return to the LOD and start again.} The SGM sent Coop’s way as his icon continued to inch forward.

“What?” Coop said out loud. The line of departure for the mission wasn’t where they’d started the stalk a few hundred meters back. It was kilometers back. “You’ve got to be shitting me!”

{You heard the Sergeant Major, Cooper. Get your ass moving or you’ll be doing your stalk in the middle of the night while the rest of us enjoy some hot chow.} Coop couldn’t infer tone from the text blinking in front of his eyes, but he was sure the GYSGT wasn’t in any mood to put up with his shit.

{You should have slowed down.} Eve sent her condolences as Coop shouldered his rifle and started heading back.

Coop hoped Hailey would call him with some information soon. He was sick of the jungle warfare, sniper shit. He wanted to kick down doors and kick some ass. The New Savannah Liberation Front surfacing was the best chance for him to do that.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 224

Benjamin Gold

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


As the van drove away, Ben was glad he wasn’t in it. Being the highest ranking officer in the SRRT he was part of all the planning sessions and put his signature right next to Jacobi’s on the training schedule. The SRRT’s chain of command was wildly unorthodox. Ben commanded the ship, and he was responsible for everyone that was on it, but the only real crew he was charged with was Petty Officer Lee. Jacobi was officially in charge of all the ground pounders, but SGM Queen was really the boss. As the LT, Jacobi still needed to sign off on everything, and the Infantry and Fleet always needed their pound of polyplast for anything that happened, so everything went on record as Ben and her being in charge.

Ben had learned long ago that reality and MTOEs didn’t always add up, and this was just the wildest example. Even above him, with everything that seemed to be happening, he wasn’t sure the chain of command was clear. Sure, he reported to RADM Stillwater as the senior Commonwealth officer on the planet, but the RADM had taken a back seat in this whole endeavor to Thomas Gold and Gold Technologies personnel. Even the Fleet engineering guys seemed to be second class citizens when it came to working on Argo and all their neat new toys.

<Speaking of new toys.> Ben looked down at his wrist to check the time.

“We need to move.” He knew it was necessary to get accountability of the whole SRRT for the day before all of this kicked off, but that didn’t mean it crunched their already limited time. “Let’s go.”

As the van containing the grunts drove off, Ben led Jacobi and Lee back toward the administration building at the center of the base. Already, all signs of the Liberation Movement’s terrorist attack had been scrubbed away. If Ben hadn’t been there himself, he would have doubted anything had occurred at all.

<And that’s the way the planetary authorities and the corporations want it,> he reminded himself.

Most of all, Thomas Gold didn’t want any reminders about the catastrophic breech of security that had led to the death of relationships he’d spent decades cultivating. Gold Technologies had probably bought and paid for the last governor’s election, now the lieutenant governor wasn’t as securely in their pocket, or was at least going to cost his father a few extra bucks, or favors, before getting in line. Ben didn’t like thinking like that, but that didn’t stop it from being the reality of the situation. When you started to get that high in the corporate and political arenas everything had an angle.

<Which brings us to today.> Ben descended the lift with Jacobi and Lee by his side to the hangar where Argo was stored.

Ben walked up to his ship and ran a hand along it. She looked pretty much the same from the outside. There were some cosmetic differences where weapons and defensive measures had been added, but she looked the same. The inside was a different matter, and that’s where they were heading.

Lee led the way up the starboard gangway and through the hatch. “Make way for the Captain!” She cleared a path through sheer personality as she walked ahead of Ben through the cramped passageways.

A normal gunboat was rated for twenty crew members: ten spacers to run and fight the ship, and ten marines to protect the ship and be deployed as needed. Today there had to be forty people on board jammed into every possible nook and cranny. Most were the heads of the various Fleet and Gold Technologies engineering teams that had been working on Argo for several months to get the new alien tech integrated and installed with its human counterparts. Ben wasn’t an engineer, but he knew that wasn’t always easy, and he couldn’t imagine how long the refit process would take for battleships when it took months to just convert a 125 meter gunboat.

<Until we get the green light to trade with the rest of the Hegemony it’s not an issue.> Ben remembered as engineers squeezed out of the way as the fiery PO3’s glared at them.

There were a few military personnel who didn’t quell at the sight of PO3 Lee, but they still respectfully moved aside from Ben. He was the skipper, and he was god on this ship.

“Captain on the bridge!” Lee called out as they emerged on the usually cramped bridge, which was now downright claustrophobic.

Thomas Gold was currently sitting in the captain’s chair and talking with RADM Stillwater. Likewise, PO3 Lee’s station at the helm was occupied by someone with a chest full of medals in the uniform of the system defense force. Ben left Lee to deal with her interloper as he pushed aside a few people to get to his chair.

“Ben!” His father was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He was practically vibrating with excitement. “She’s a beauty isn’t she?” He waved his hands around to indicate Argo.

“She’s always been a good ship,” Ben kept his face cordial, but his father was grating on his nerves. The Fleet used to be a way to get away from the Gold business empire. Now, it looked like his life had been lumped back in with his father. Worst of all, Ben knew that without his father’s intercession after the New Lancashire incident, he’d be out on his ass and in Gold Technologies’ corporate fleet. So, he literally owed his current position to his father. “Now if you can please move. I need my chair.”

“I was thinking I’d take her out.” RADM Stillwater stated.

The engineers and other civilians within earshot didn’t think much of the comment, but the military personnel froze with their mouths open in shock. A RADM might outrank a LCDR by several grades, but the captain of a ship was the captain of a ship. It went beyond tradition that the captain was in charge. It didn’t matter if High Admiral Gilmore was onboard Argo; Ben would still be in charge. For the RADM to try and take control of today’s operation was beyond bad taste. It was naval blasphemy.

So Ben felt completely comfortable in his response. “No,” he stated flatly. It helped that he’d never liked the RADM, and didn’t care if the RADM liked him. He already knew his OER was going to suck, but that was the flipside to his father’s involvement in this project: Ben was in it.

The RADM’s nostril’s flared and his face got red. The senior officer wasn’t a small man, and it looked like it had been a decade since he’d gone on a run, so he looked like an engorged cherry as he steamed and glared at Ben.

“Excuse me,” the RADM practically growled.

“Respectfully, Sir,” Ben meant absolutely zero respect as he said it, “but I’m the captain of Argo, and I will take her out to put her through her paces. If you have a problem with that we can radio fleet command and get this sorted out. We’ve got these fancy new QE communicators, so we’ll get a response soon.”

One of the great upgrades Argo had undergone was in the coms department. Normally, communications were limited to light speed with the exception of the massive QE setups on Launchers. What the new Hegemony technology allowed was an infinitely smaller piece of tech to be installed on individual ships and powered by the gluon reactors. It was going to revolutionize interstellar communications once it was mainstreamed, which Ben knew his father was going to pioneer, but at the moment it would allow Argo’s coms to reach all the way to a similar setup back on New Washington. Best of all, Ben knew what their answer would be.

“That won’t be necessary, Lieutenant Commander,” the RADM put as much disdain into the rank as he could. “I just believed a more seasoned hand would be needed for such a delicate operation…but if you insist.” The RADM backed down, and Thomas Gold got up from the captain’s chair.

His father might not understand military protocols as well as someone in the Fleet, but he noticed a power struggle when he saw one, and he smiled when he knew his son emerged victorious.

“Attention everyone!” Jacobi’s voice, pitched to address a company of grunts on a firing range, resonated on the small bridge. “Only essential personnel are allowed on the bridge now. Everyone else please find another spot and secure yourself. We’ll be setting sail in five minutes.”  She left it up to the gathered people to determine who was “essential”, and guessed correctly that they knew who could stay and go.

Ben silently thanked his foresight in bringing along the infantry LT. He knew this mission was going to be a shitshow, and as the OIC of the SRRT’s ground element, he was able to pull her away from the insertions of the Individualized Organic Router to act as the head of security for the Argo on this mission. He checked the regulations and for an out-of-system mission, without even a fraction of the crew compliment, with all the top-secret tech they had on board, a security chief was required. He couldn’t think of anyone better than the ground commander, who also happened to be his girlfriend. This was one of those instances where rank had its privileges.

After Jacobi’s announcement, everyone but Thomas Gold, RADM Stillwater, and two chief engineers left the bridge. At seven people, that still left the bridge much more cramped than during normal operations, but they would have to make do. It didn’t look like anyone else was going anywhere.

“Lieutenant, secure the ship.” Ben gave the command.

“Aye, Sir, securing the ship.” Jacobi pressed a button on her terminal and the ship’s exterior hatches sealed themselves and disappeared behind panels of a ship’s equivalent of Dragonscales that slid into place. Noticeable hatches were structural weak points for the enemy to target, so this procedure made that targeting more difficult.

The procedure also required that she walk through the ship and ensure everything, and everyone, was secured for takeoff. This was necessary for travel through atmosphere. If Argo was already in space it would be different; although, Ben ran a tight ship and things would be secured anyway. With the forty people on board today however, they didn’t want any injuries; especially when it came to all the VIPs involved. Ben just hoped Veronica Black wasn’t onboard. Jacobi wasn’t the jealous type, but he wouldn’t put it past her to “miss” something not life threatening that might fall and hit the good doctor while they punched through the turbulence of New Savannah’s sky.

“All secured,” Jacobi returned to the bridge five minutes later.

“Alert traffic control, and get us in the pattern,” Ben passed to Aiko.

She took it from there as the hanger underneath the base opened up a tunnel to release the Argo from a hidden blast door fifty kilometers away. People could theoretically be watching for the ship’s emergence, but the chance of Blockie espionage was small on New Savannah. It didn’t take them long to make the climb through the atmosphere and into space. Aiko made their speed leisurely to avoid any unwanted attention. To the copious traffic in near-orbit around New Savannah and its moons, Argo was just a gunboat going out on patrol.

“Make sure our guests don’t get restless,” Ben suggested to Jacobi.

It was the nature of space travel to be long and boring, and this wasn’t a pleasure cruise like many of their VIPs might be used to. The engineers would be busy with scanning and taking readings of everything, but the people who just wanted to be here to say they’d been part of this important moment in human history were in for a long few hours.

“We’re in the pattern, Sir. Course zero-three-five. That’ll take us out of the way and put us behind the gas giant so we can run our tests undisturbed.” Aiko informed as they settled in for a three-hour flight to their destination.

“Good work, helm. Let’s run a full set of diagnostics before we get there to make sure every system is green and that nobody broke her during the refit.” Ben ignored the glares the two engineers were giving him and got to work. It might be three hours of downtime for some, but as the skipper he had plenty to do.

The three hours flew by as they approached the point in space that had been designated as their testing site. It happened to be behind a tidally locked, huge, Jovian gas giant that shielded them from other system traffic. This was where the Commonwealth and corporations did a lot of their weapons testing they couldn’t do on the planet’s surface or the inhabited moons.

They were only five minutes out, and almost completed their deceleration when the last diagnostic came back green. “The board is green, Sir.” Aiko replied. The engineers who were scrutinizing the same data waited another twenty minutes before acknowledging that everything seemed good to go.

“All hands, it’s the time you’ve all been waiting for. Prepare to portal,” Ben announced to everyone.  There was no raucous cheering, just an exchange of excited smiles between scientific experts.

Space travel, despite its frequency, was inherently dangerous, and new types of space travel only compounded the issue. Ben had a vivid image of Argo exploding into a billion pieces as they powered up the gluon reactor to the appropriate settings. He would have been a little more comfortable if Carol was present to troubleshoot issues, but people way above his paygrade wanted this to be a completely human venture.

Ben thought that was stupid because if they failed one of the galaxy’s titans of industry, a crucial planet’s elite, many ranking military members, and little old Ben Gold would have their component atoms scattered across the cosmos.

“Reactor at one hundred percent. Everything is still green.” Jacobi announced from her terminal.

“Helm, initialize QE link with the buoy at Temperance Ending,” Ben commanded.

That was another point he didn’t agree with. Instead of portaling to a well-established system with a Launcher, the powers that be had decided that secrecy was secondary only to safety. So, for the first of mankind’s portaling trials, Argo was traveling a short seventeen light years to the sparsely populated Temperance Ending system. It was a Commonwealth system so far away from Blockie space, and so unimportant strategically, militarily, and economically that there was virtually no one watching it to see if the new transportation method worked. The Fleet had even had to drop one of its newly designed QE buoys, courtesy of Gold Technologies, for the portaling tech to even lock on to the system.

“Ready to go, Skipper.” Aiko stated after Ben seemed to hesitate for a moment too long.

“Amber, double check to coordinates.” Ben asked the upgraded artificial intelligence installed in Argo. Ben didn’t know who named it Amber, or why, but he guessed it might have been some long lost potential girlfriend of one of the software engineers. “Nothing against you, Petty Officer, but I’d rather get this one right.”

“No arguments here, Sir.” Aiko didn’t look upset at his lack of confidence in her navigation.

“Coordinates are accurate, Lieutenant Commander Gold,” Amber’s computerized voice was sure and confident to lend credence to her statement.

Since Ben was pretty sure Hegemony level AI’s were much better than humanity’s attempt at the same thing, he was good with her assurances. “Activate the drive.”

Everything up to this point had been pretty typical of humanity’s FTL travels over the last few centuries, but the portaling drive was something completely alien, and never before tested by mankind. The difference was made known once Aiko activated the drive. The old Alcubierre Drives had no transition between sublight and FTL travel. One second a ship was in normal space and the next was moving faster than light. Portaling was different. Gold light flashed as the drive opened a gateway into the interdimensional network that humanity had barely scratched the surface of.

Ben thought it was a little like a flower blossoming in fast forward as the portal opened in front of Argo. “Petty Officer?” Ben asked.

“Portal is stable, Sir.” Aiko responded, Jacobi concurred, Amber agreed, and the engineers gave thumbs up.

“Ok, take us in.” Ben gulped as Argo surged forward with a single pulse of her engines and was swallowed by the portal.

Once the ship entered, that portal folded in on itself and closed behind it in the blink of an eye. The trip to Temperance Ending, which would have taken the old Argo eighteen hours, and expended 90 percent of its exotic matter fuel, took the new Argo one hour and three minutes and barely put a dent in the gluon reactor’s power supply.

Argo and its passengers would spend days in Temperance Endings going over the results of the sixty-three minute trip, but they would all come to the same conclusion. Mankind’s travels through the stars had just changed forever, and for the better.

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PCS to Eden – Welcome Home

Despite what people might think, getting to Hell was the easy part. Gerry had God to thank for that. Whatever he was now had retained some characteristics of his former Lord, Seere. Since Seere was a Throne before being exiled, he’d been bestowed with unparalleled transportation powers. Gerry had been on the receiving end of those abilities when he’d been transported to Earth what felt like another lifetime ago.

<That’s because it was.> He reminded himself of his death and subsequent resurrection as something new.

That old part of him made the nearly-instantaneous transportation possible, and the physical throne sitting in his new underground demesne made it even simpler. The realm of Seere was gone. The Infernal Lord’s connection with the land had been severed with his death, but the throne’s connection, which had funneled power into the land for eons, was stronger. Even so, so long after Seere’s death the connection was tenuous at best. It was a good thing they were undertaking this now.

Gerry had already tapped Pete for the expedition, but he could take others too. Vicky was out. As a Soulless, there was a slight chance her presence might alert Satan to Gerry’s arrival, or even worse, throw off their course and put them in the wrong realm. She didn’t like it, but he put her in charge of getting the nightclub the demesne was connected to up and running. Having the first place where people could unwind after supernatural disaster after supernatural disaster was going to bring in a lot of money. Money that could then be used to expand Gerry’s network and influence.

As much as he didn’t want to, Gerry knew Gaius needed to come. His knowledge of the former kingdom was second to none, and he was a skilled fighter. When they ran into trouble – not if – Gaius would be needed.

Gerry felt comfortable carrying one more person, and the logical choice was either Jeb or Jezebel. Both had pros and cons to their participation. Jeb and Gaius had been consorting a lot, and Gerry knew his former commander was sowing dissent. It was the way generals operated back during Seere’s reign. If there was a hint of weakness in one of their opponents they would exploit it, and then when that person failed, they would attack. Seere didn’t care. To him, competition was healthy and beneficial to his army, which compared to other Infernal Lords’, was modest. So, if Jeb accompanied them back to Hell. Gerry would need to keep a close eye on the two of them.

Jezebel’s issue was the opposite. He’d seen a link form between her and Brock after their shared adventure taking down the guardians and reestablishing Gerry’s claim to the city. He was also sure they were fucking like bunnies, so not bringing her along would lead to complacency in his rear detachment. Since he wanted to retain control of the city, it was important he left people in charge who weren’t too busy sucking dick or eating muff.

In the end, Gerry needed to make the call based on a worst case scenario outcome. He needed to assume he wouldn’t find Hell’s Primordial, and he would return empty handed. “Jezebel, you’re with me,” he decided.

She looked disappointed, and shot a look over her shoulder at Brock as she walked over to Gerry. With Pete, Gaius, and Jezebel now surrounding him, Gerry turned his focus inward and concentrated.

The teleportation wasn’t complicated, but pulling three other people with him took a lot more power. Thankfully, his throne had been busy collecting æther from the surrounding city for days, and it had more than enough juice to get the job done. Gerry made sure his personal tank was topped off before teleporting.

Just like previous times it felt like someone had hooked him behind the navel, attached the hook to a pickup, and then floored it. He didn’t have time to be uncomfortable. One moment he was in his demesne, and the next he was on hard-packed, red soil. Instinctually, Gerry did a three hundred and sixty degree assessment while the rest of his entourage collected themselves.

<This is wrong.> Gerry’s sight clashed with his memory.

The sea was to their right, so there was no mistaking where they were, but everything else was different. He’d deliberately dropped the group well outside Seere’s former capital because he was sure enemy forces were still pillaging it. Time didn’t move the same in Earth and Hell, and hellspawn took their time when it came to pillaging. If Gerry focused hard enough, he could hear the screaming in the distance.

<Not my problem.> He turned to the sea, but the surroundings still looked foreign.

This had once been a road leading north toward the River Styx. Seere’s legions used it to quickly move troops to the front when Cain pressed his attacks. The road was kept meticulously clean. Souls that weren’t drafted into the legion, working the Elysian Fields, of subsumed by the land itself, were tasked with keeping the roads maintained and clean. It was a thankless, never ending job, but someone had to do it, and you didn’t get much of a choice in Hell.

Now, it looked like a road never existed. The gray-green of the fields that once occupied either side was gone. It was now a barren desert of red as far as the eye could see. Even the rolling hills were gone, like a giant had flattened them.

“The Tectonic Laws of Hell,” Gaius followed Gerry’s eyes. “He who owns it can do whatever the hell they want with it.” Gaius’s expression was unreadable, but his eyes were hard and he kept glancing back in the direction of the city. He could hear the screams too. “You remember when we defeated Beelzebub’s horde in the pass before you became a Dux. Almost instantly, Seere began to exert his influence and change the landscape. This is just it on a much larger scale.” Gaius sniffed the air. “It smells like sulfur to the south, so I’m guessing Beelzebub has laid claim to most of the kingdom. The north is sweet and sickly. I smell rotting growth, so Cain has finally pushed past the Styx, and probably ceded some of his northern land to Lilith as compensation for assisting with the war.”

Gerry had no reason to doubt Gaius’ analysis, but it also didn’t affect their mission one way or the other. They weren’t heading north or south.

“Let’s…” Gerry began but stopped when the rattling of metal against metal sounded from all around them.

Creatures popped up from beneath the sand like spiders while others appeared from behind a bend in the road that camouflaged their position with a rock face. A quick assessment showed thirty creatures, but it was their disposition that confused Gerry more than their sudden appearance.

The creatures that popped out of the ground to spring the ambush were clearly from Beelzebub’s horde. They had a few tell-tale human characteristics, but extra-long, hairy legs had been added along with thin wings like mosquitos. He knew that because their leader had a pointed snout they could only be designed to penetrate and draw blood.

The group that emerged from behind the outcropping were the cursed soldiers of Cain in varying states of decay. Their leader’s skin on his face had sloshed off the point you could see entirely through the opening, into the mouth, and all the way to the other side of the opposite cheek, which look like it only had a matter of days until it joined its opposite’s fate.

Lastly, and certainly not least, was who Gerry assumed was the commander of the entire force. She was big, at least eight feet, with bulging and defined muscles, but wearing nothing more than an armored bikini. The bikini was Infernal Iron painted over in gold and with numerous precious stones attached. To a seasoned fighter like Gerry this meant one of two things. First, the woman was a moron, and more interested in looking good then winning battles. That thought was quickly discarded because it was a thought that belonged on Earth, not in Hell. You didn’t survive in Hell by simply looking good. You just became a stronger person’s bitch.

That left the only reasonable alternative. She was a strong, skilled, seasoned fighter who didn’t need armor protection to get the job done. Judging by the blood-stained battle ax she easily hefted onto her shoulder Gerry was inclined to believe she’d done her fair share of pillaging.

But most importantly, she was clearly a member of Lilith’s tribe. That was three separate factions of Hell working together. Gerry was impressed by the amount of teamwork on display, but that didn’t stop the fact that he needed to go through them to continue with his mission.

There was no banter before the fight. Gerry could see the bloodlust running through the enemy’s veins. Most of the eyes were glued to Jezebel’s curves, but the big woman was looking straight at Gerry. He could practically see her though process. <Kill the rest and have some fun with this one and the slit his throat before moving on.> Gerry was sorry he’d have to disappoint her.

Gaius moved first. He was never one to go on defense, and he sprang at Cain’s soldiers. They had normal human characteristics, and he made easy work of them with his trusted gladius. Jezebel and Pete turned toward Beelzebub’s abominations that scurried toward them on wrongly-placed appendages.  They coordinated their attack to limit their power usage. They had no idea how long they’d need to go before recharging.

Pete laid down a suppressive layer of fire like a human flame thrower. He caught a third of the beasts in the blast. They shrieked as the fire burned through skin, flesh, and bone. Some retreated to the cliffs above the ocean and threw themselves into the mercy of the water; completely ignoring the dangers of what lurked beneath the waves. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. They continued to burn as they sunk into the shallow depths and were dead before they hit the bottom.

Jezebel darted in after the wave of fire passed over the enemy. She was partially transformed into her combat form. Fangs and claws lashed out at lightning-quick speeds and removed heads, arms, and multiple legs in single wipes. When the beasts regrouped, she nimbly danced backward, drew them forward, and let Pete hose them down with fire. It took less than two attacks to completely decimate them.

That left Gerry to face the leader. She was calm and confident, even when she saw her allies being chopped to bits and burned alive. She gave a few experimental swings of her axe, seeming to test the weight, before suddenly swinging into action. Gerry read her intentions a mile away, and reassessed her prowess. She was undoubtedly a good fighter, and powerful, judging by the speed of the blade as it sung through the air toward his throat. However, she also appeared young and full of herself. She hadn’t had enough trips to the resurrection pit to learn some valuable lessons.

Today, Gerry would be her teacher. He was moving nearly before she was, and the blade passed through empty air. Expecting to meet some resistance, the warrior over rotated, and Gerry took advantage of the opportunity. He could have drawn the blade of Divine Steel he was carrying with him, but if any Infernal Lords were nearby they might sense the blade touched by God. So, Gerry decided on good, old-fashioned brute force. When the warrior over extended, he directed a powerful blow directly into her side. The warrior woman expected her body, which she’d been directing æther into for days, to stand up to the punishment. When Gerry’s fist nearly went through her, pulverizing bone and internal organs in the process, she realized how seriously she’d miscalculated.

She tried to reverse her swing, but her body wasn’t obeying her commands. A follow-on kick snapped her femur and nearly wrenched her legs from her body. She went down hard, but didn’t give up. Gerry had to admire that. In the shock of the first blow she’d lost her ax, but she doggedly crawled toward it. Gerry drove his boot into her extended arm when she got close, and picked up the blade itself.

“Nice quality,” he said to himself as he brought it high and down on the warrior woman’s neck. He then channeled his own æther to absorb the woman’s. “You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He shrugged. The warrior would never have the chance to rectify her mortal mistake.

Gerry quickly used the gathered æther to top of his lieutenants who’d been forced to use their power. It still left plenty, and the smidgeon Gerry used to defeat the woman was inconsequential, so he used the rest of the considerable power to wipe the land clean and ward against what happened. The last thing he needed was someone else happening upon the scene and alerting their superiors. Gerry and his team were powerful, but he didn’t want to go up against an Infernal Lord.

The remainder of the absorbed æther he dispelled into the ground. Where he released it a well-manicured square of grass appeared. It was healthy, green, and a total contrast to everything around it. Gerry quickly kicked some red dirt over it to hide the abnormality before turning back to his team.

“So, that was fun and all, but what now?” Pete was looking around clearly not impressed with what he saw.

“We start our search,” Gerry replied calmly, as wings sprouted from his back and he unfurled them to their full length.

“Where?” Pete didn’t have wings but the air around him started to ripple with heat and he rose into the air.

“There,” Gerry pointed out to sea. “When I was in Seere’s legion it was drilled into us from day one not to venture out beyond the fog wall.” Gerry gestured at the natural barrier that obscured everything beyond the shore. “We know all the Infernal Lords of Hell and where there kingdoms are. We’ve studied maps, planned contingencies for invasions, but we’ve never looked that way.”

“That’s true.” Gaius’ own wings had sprouted from his back. “We never went out to sea, and that complacency lost me the capitol during the defense. I can honestly say if anyone was looking for Hell’s Primordial they haven’t looked out there. If they have, they never returned.”

“That’s great,” Jezebel was standing with her hands on her hips. “Slight problem.” She pointed at herself. “I’m not a big fan of water, and unlike the rest of you I can’t fly.”

“Gaius will carry you.” Gerry ignored the slight squinting of Gaius’ eyes that showed he felt disgraced by the order.

Gerry didn’t care. He was looking out into the sea, past the fog wall, and to what could possibly lie beyond it. As far as Gerry knew, no one had mapped all of Hell. Anything could be out there.

<Including what I’m looking for.> Without another thought, Gerry flapped his wings, lifted off, and headed out to sea.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 223

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

It had been a week since the clandestine meeting with Hailey, and Coop hadn’t heard anything. The PAD just sat there silently. He would have been more than happy to sit back with a cold beer, turn on the holo, and try and get back on Eve or Aiko’s good sides, but Coop’s idea of a good time didn’t mesh with the SGM’s.  When Coop had returned from the meeting, the SGM hadn’t given him enough time to take a shit before being ordered to get into his PT uniform and assigned tasks to complete. Coop hadn’t cleaned his LACS after the exercise, and after a ten kilometer run, he spent the rest of his first day back on regular military duty picking pieces of moon dirt out of his LACS’ crevices.

Every day was like that. PT was followed by classroom exercises in their new equipment with the resident civilian engineers and Carol in attendance. The afternoon was more practical application of the hardware and software, either in VR, or on the system defense force’s ranges set up outside the city when available. Coop thought the SRRTs were supposed to be special, but since the anti-terrorism operation, they acted just like any other military unit Coop had ever been a part of.

“Everyone finish up. We’re on the truck in ten.” The SGM stuck his head into the small NCO chow hall.

Coop had no idea what truck he was referring to, but he knew where they were picked up for exercises, so he planned out the next ten minutes to ensure they would be there on time. He wanted to know what they were doing, but he didn’t bother looking it up. Eve would already have the training schedule up on her PAD, so there was no point wasting time when he could be eating.

“The schedule says we’re slated for inventory and technological familiarization,” Eve frowned at the screen in front of her before folding it up and putting it back in her CMU’s pocket.

Coop was pretty sure the SGM tried to make things as vague as possible just to fuck with them. He’d learned long ago not to get worked up about it. Instead, he shoveled the powdered eggs into his mouth and took a big gulp of coffee.

“Well we better get to it.” Coop rose and deposited his tray in the auto-cleaner before heading out. It was a short walk to the loading bay, and he was there a full three minutes early. Despite that, SSG Hightower and GYSGT Cunningham were already present and getting things squared away.

Coop fell into the front row of the small formation next to Eve. As the lowest man on the totem pole, he was to the far left. Usually, Mike would be standing behind him, but the big guy was still recovering from having his guts repaired.

With a minute to go the SGM appeared behind the wheel of a civilian van. He got out along with LCDR Gold, and LT Wentworth. The two officers walked to the back of the formation where they took their place. Aiko was also back there with the LCDR. As a spacer, she stood apart from the infantry formation. Coop would have turned around to talk to her earlier, but their relationship was still best described as frosty. Eve was warming back up to his presence, but the warmer Eve got the colder Aiko got, and vice versa. They were opposite ends of a weighted scale, and Coop was growing more convinced that he would have to work on repairing one relationship while ignoring the other. Either way, he feared for his personal safety.

<There’s no wrath like a woman scorned.> He wasn’t sure if he got the quote right, and didn’t really care. He just didn’t want to wake up one night with a knife in him, or something important missing. The woman who placed it would determine the target.

“Cooper!” The GYSGT snapped him out of his little trance. Everyone else was hoping in the van while he was still standing there.

“Just keeping you on your toes, Gunney.” Coop automatically replied back as he jumped into action. Because he’d been the last to move he got the honor of sitting up front with the Gunney.

He noticed the officers and Aiko weren’t present. That would normally prompt some questions from him, but one look at the GYSGT told him to keep his mouth shut. If anything, she looked a little nervous. Cunningham never looked nervous.

Squished next to the GYSGT would have been an uncomfortable ride, but they ended up not going far. Less than three kilometers later, they pulled to a stop in front of the base’s hospital. Coop’s o-shit-o-meter immediately spiked from curious to ‘what-the-fuck-is-going-on’ when he saw a dozen doctors waiting for them with poorly-concealed, eager looks on their faces.

When the doors to the van opened, the docs began calling out names like they were trying to herd a group of kindergarteners.

“Sergeant Cooper…Sergeant Mark Cooper! A pair of female doctors yelled from the periphery.

“That’s me.” Coop walked toward them and shouldered aside people in his path. That knocked a few of the other doctors to the ground, but he ignored their glares. Coop had been in the military long enough to know they were about to be given some sort of medical procedure. Knowing what he did about the SRRT, Coop did not have a warm and fuzzy feeling about whatever experiment they were about to conduct with some untested alien technology. Getting reassurances from a giant, floating tree that things were going to work did not fill him with confidence.

“Come with us,” they grabbed him by the hand and led him into a side door of the building.

Normally, two attractive women leading him somewhere would be cause for a celebration. Not this time. They descended several stories into what could be called the bowels of the facility where several clean rooms had been set up.

“Undress and put this on.” The doctors deposited him in front of a set of doors leading to one of the clean rooms. Coop was expecting some type of hospital gown to be the new uniform of the day, but instead they gave him what looked like a tight shower cap and nothing else. There were glowing data relays, processors, and sensor nodes on the cap, which further heightened Coop’s anxiety.

“So I’m just going to rock out with my junk out for this?” Coop yelled after the doctors as they retreated to some sort of command room. He never got a response, and doubted he would. If they were going to be uncomfortable with the all the nudity then that was just the flavor of the day. For whatever they were about to do to him, they could deal with him hanging brain.

With a sigh, he undressed and put the shower cap thingy on his head. There was nothing for a moment until the form-fitting material suctioned to his head. It was tight, but not unbearably so. The weirdest part was that the cap was slightly warm.

“Welcome, Ladies and Gentleman, to another exciting day in the advancement of mankind.” Thomas Gold’s voice announced over unseen speakers.

<This guy again.> Coop rolled his eyes and wondered who was really in control of this SRRT: the Commonwealth or Gold Technologies.

The corporate titan went on for a minute or so, but Coop didn’t pay attention, and only tuned back in when he said, “Thanks for all you are doing.” That seemed to be a cue, and one of the two doctors entered the clean room in a biohazard suit.

<Now I’ve got the warm and fuzzies.> Coop didn’t even try to flirt, and he looked at her hand with apprehension when she held it out.

“Sergeant Cooper, I’m going to need your consent for this part.”  The doctors produced a PAD. Coop looked at what was in her other hand and fought back a shiver.

Inside an injector, balanced in clear fluid, was a small seed. Unlike some, Coop knew exactly what the thing was. He’d seen one modeled to RADM Nelson back on New Lancashire before everything went to shit.

<Bioseed.> Coop cringed as he remembered what Bob had called it. It looked like a slimy sunflower seed, but was a medium brown color. It looked like a small, oozing poop nugget that was slowly diluting the clear fluid in the injector.

“I would like to introduce all of you to the Individualized Organic Router.” Thomas Gold stated with definitive pride.

Coop bit his lip but couldn’t help himself. “Why not just continue calling it a Bioseed?”

There was silence for a moment, and Coop could practically feel the SGM and GYSGT glaring at him from whatever clean room they were sitting naked in. One small blessing was that the windows were tinted for privacy.

“Focus group testing suggests that people are uncomfortable with the seed terminology. It makes them envision something growing inside of them. An IOR conjures more of a mechanical image that we’re accustomed to when dealing with technology.” Gold’s explanation sounded like part of a rehearsed sales pitch.

“But just to be clear,” Coop just couldn’t leave well enough alone. “It is still an organic seed that we’re about take, which will grow and intermingle with our brain to create the pathways to route and connect with alien information systems that we haven’t developed yet?”


“Cool. As long as we’re all on the same page.” Coop flexed his left arm several times until the veins started to pop. Then he tapped it with his right hand’s middle and pointer finger. “Let’s go, Doc, shoot me up.”

“Sergeant Cooper has given consent to proceed.” The doctor said to the PAD for legal reasons.

She approached, pressed the injector against a throbbing vein, and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp, stabbing pain, but Coop ignored it. He’d had a leg crunched by massively increased gravity. This was nothing. What was worse was the feeling of blood pushing the seed along. It was small enough to be moved along in his enhanced veins, but just barely. Now Coop knew what it was like to have a blood clot.

He looked around and tried to see through his clean room partition and into the next one over. He imagined Eve sitting at the edge of her bed with her face screwed up in disgust.

“Cheers!” Coop yelled while pantomiming clinking glasses together in the window’s direction although no one but the doctors monitoring him could see or hear him.

His doctor came over and pushed his arm back down while monitoring his vitals. What Coop didn’t know was that he would be sitting there for the next thirty-six hours while the IOR made its way gradually to his brain. After that, he and the rest of the SRRT were put into a medically-induced coma to allow the IOR to reproduce more quickly and establish itself. Normally, this would happen more gradually while people slept, but the infantry didn’t have time to waste. There were things to do, people to kill, wars to win, and interstellar diplomacy to consider. The SRRT teams were needed fully operational yesterday, and no one was willing to wait for things to progress naturally.

Coop just had to embrace the suck and deal with it.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 222

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Pooler, New Savannah System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop pulled the hatch closed behind him. It was a hatch not a door on the space station above the moon. They used Navy terms here instead of ground pounder terminology, but Coop wasn’t concerned with that. He took a deep breath and focused on his PAD. BLOCKED NUMBER was displayed in big red letters, but that wasn’t a surprise. If Coop thought back on the situation, it seemed Hailey, or the people Hailey worked for, had been able to take out the Liberation Movement terrorists and capture others before the Commonwealth or local police. Then, they’d been able to transport those people across the city while avoiding surveillance. Whoever they were, they obviously didn’t cut corners when it came to operational security.

Coop let the breath out slowly before hitting the accept button on the PAD. The call was voice only, so no 3-D holo of the person’s head appeared from the PAD’s surface. Instead, he was met with silence. He waited for a good ten seconds on the chance it might be a bad connection, but it wasn’t.

“Hello?” Coop finally asked.

“Coop.” The one word response brought back a flood of memories. The foremost being that the tone Hailey was using told him she was suspicious. At least this time is wasn’t her being suspicious that he was sleeping around with another girl. This time, he had no idea what she was thinking.

Coop wouldn’t lie to himself and say he wasn’t a little nervous. After all, this was a girl he’d boned on the regular for years, and maybe even had feelings for. He cared about her well-being, and if he was being honest, it hurt a bit that the first thing she did when they saw each other was kick him in the jejunum.

“Hailey,” he stated back to her. Then, after a moment, “I think we might have gotten off on the wrong foot…with that foot being the one that kicked me over the banister.” Coop couldn’t stop from sounding a little pissed. He’d come really close to smashing his head on the edge of the fountain. He might have his skeletal structure reinforced, but that still might have cracked his skull open.

Hailey didn’t say anything back. She seemed like she was waiting for something.

“But that’s water under the bridge,” Coop continued. “Sorry about your club. I didn’t want things to get messy, but your people started shooting and it just kind of devolved from that.” Coop shrugged even though she couldn’t see it.

“Devolved? That’s a pretty big word for you Coop. What have they been teaching you in the military?”

Coop bristled slightly at that because he used to be able to tell when she was giving him a good-natured ribbing. Now, he wasn’t quite sure.

“The better question is what have they been teaching you? I know what type of place that was, and judging by the room you just came out of, I have a good idea what you were doing.” Coop retorted, his voice a little on the cold side.

He immediately regretted it. He was supposed to be opening up a dialogue to get information about the Liberation Movement. Instead, he was criticizing her life choices.

“Sorry,” he genuinely apologized. “What you do is your business and yours alone. I just wanted to call you so we could meet up and talk.”

“Talk about what?”

Coop couldn’t tell if there was interest in her tone or not, so he assumed the best and pushed forward. “We’ve got reports that some of your people might have picked up some people that we were looking for. I’m sure you’ve heard about the terrorist attack at the base. It’s pretty nasty stuff, and we’re just after the perpetrators.”

“Whose we? Are you working for the cops?” There wasn’t any judgment in the tone. If this was a year and a half ago, she would have called him a snitching bastard, but things had changed.

“I’m working with the planetary authorities to help find the people who did this, and as far as I know, that does not include you.” Coop knew he couldn’t tell her about the SRRT, but he also knew it was important to relay that he wasn’t after her or her organization.

Hailey was quiet for a long time; too quiet. He was pretty sure he was on mute and she was talking to her bosses. Technically, Coop should be talking with his bosses too, but the SGM’s philosophy was to get from Point A to Point B while staying within the commander’s intent. The path was up to the individual soldier to decide and take. In other words, he wasn’t going to micromanage them like children. Everyone here was a big boy or girl who knew their shit. They were battle tested. He trusted them to make the right call. Unfortunately, in Coop’s experience, many people, especially officers, didn’t share the SGM’s attitude on leadership. The S2 was probably one of those people, but Coop had better things to do than constantly loop the LCDR in on this. If the woman was doing her job correctly, she was probably already listening in on the call. Now that Coop thought about it, calls were supposed to be restricted inside certain sections of the Pooler Anchorage.

“We can meet.” Hailey finally came back on the line. “One hour…Wright Square…under Landing Point…come alone.” The line went dead and Coop started moving.

A shuttle ride from Pooler down to Savannah City took at least thirty minutes in transit time. Coop needed to get a ride first and then get to Wright Square. The Square was one of the largest in the capitol city. Hundreds of thousands passed through it every day, and that large transportation circle that passed around it made for easy ingress and egress. As far as public places went, it would be a nightmare for the Commonwealth to try to catch Hailey, and with only an hour to prep, no one would be in place in time.

All of that flashed through Coop’s head as he threw open the door to the briefing room. The retired tankers were having a good laugh that was abruptly cut off by the sound of metal striking metal. “We’re on it sixty.” Coop informed the SGM before taking off down the narrow hallway toward the shuttle bay.

“Make a hole people!” The SGM and Eve were right on Coop’s ass, and surprisingly people made a hole.

Coop thought it had less to do with the SGM yelling than people seeing three very large human beings barreling in their direction. <Whatever works.> Coop wasn’t thinking about those people anyway. He was thinking of what he was going to say.




Fifty seven minutes later Coop stepped foot onto the winding sidewalks of Wright Square. The original Wright Square back on Earth’s Savannah was maybe a tenth of the size of the remake. Instead of a monument to the Creek leader Tomochichi, this Wright Square had a statue commemorating the landing of the first settlers on the planet. Coop didn’t pay the big colony ship with a stream of people disembarking much attention; even if it was his final destination. He was focused on the area around him.

Like he suspected, it was a surveillance clusterfuck. There were easily a few thousand people jostling to get where they were going. It was 16:57, just before the end of the work day, and soon this whole place would be packed shoulder to shoulder with commuters.

“Coms check.” Coop subvocalized into the bone mic.

“Good copy,” Eve’s voice replied.

Even if Hailey said come alone there was no way in hell the SGM was going to allow that. Instead, the rest of the SRRT was in place around the park and in overwatch positions. Coop was entering from the north. Eve was sitting on a bench half a kilometer away near the south side exit. She wouldn’t be able to catch Hailey if she ran, but the plan was to form a perimeter and try to box her in. Coop didn’t have a lot of faith in that plan, but at least there was a plan.

“We’ve got you, Cooper. No sweat,” GYSGT Cunningham interjected. She was behind a sniper rifle about a klick away. It was her and the SGM’s responsibility to watch for Hailey and any threats. Sullivan and Hightower were also on perimeter duty, on the east and west sides respectively.

Coop scanned the people around him. He knew what to look for: looking at the hands were the key, and he also monitored for bulges in smartcloth that might indicate a weapon. Lastly, the contact lens he wore was running facial recognition on anyone he wanted to check out further. Despite the technology at his fingertips, it was hard to get a good bead on someone who was just hurrying by to catch transpo home after a long day at work.

<Nice work, Hailey.> He had to give his ex credit where credit was due. Even though she said to come alone, she knew he wouldn’t…just like she wouldn’t.

“I’ve got one.” The GYSGT sent over their net. “They’re three hundred meters at your two o’clock, third story window.”

Coop didn’t look right away. He continued to scan the area like normal and only looked up when he swiveled his head. His contact lens highlighted the hostile in red. It really just highlighted the window in red because as a trained sniper, the guy fired from inside the cover and concealment of the room. Coop just hoped the SGM or GYSGT had a good angle on the guy.

It was only two hundred and fifty meters from the square’s entrance to Landing Point. It took him more than three minutes to get there, so he was technically late. He hoped Hailey would still show. While he waited, he took a seat on one of the benches surrounding the monument and did his best to look inconspicuous. His eyes continued to scan, and updates flowed into his lens as his teammates identified more potential hostiles.

One of the cops patrolling the square stared at him a little too long, but eventually continued on his patrol. Coop’s eyes were on the cop’s back when the bench shifted slightly from additional weight.

“Hello, Coop.” Hailey was sitting next to him, close enough to touch, and pointing a snub-nosed pistol at his chest. “What do you want?”

Coop kept his face calm and collected. He was wearing body armor. He wasn’t a moron, but body armor wouldn’t protect him if she decided to shoot him in the face. “I told you what I wanted. I want the people who perpetrated the terrorist attack. The people your people picked up in the warehouse.” Coop kept his face emotionless as he watched her process the situation. “You look good, Hailey. Get a little work done?” He couldn’t help himself and cracked a smile.

Having an audio-only connection on a PAD and seeing someone face-to-face allowed people to read each other better. Hailey was clearly tense and expecting something. Coop tried to not be tense, but it was hard to a degree with a pistol pointed at his gut. Both of them read each other’s expressions with whatever experience they had gathered over the last year and a half.

After several tense seconds, Hailey tucked the pistol back in her jacket pocket. “You can have your people stand down,” she insisted as she casually leaned back on the bench.

Coop didn’t know if she actually knew where his people were, and he wasn’t going to give up that information. “How about all of our people stand down and we just talk.” He nodded toward the window where he knew the Hailey’s sniper was sitting.

Hailey didn’t give any indication of calling anyone off, but the tension in the air was less, which was good enough for Coop.

“Seriously, you look good.” Coop repeated. It was always good to start off a negotiation with a compliment.

“You look big.” Hailey ran her eyes up and down his enhanced body. “It looks like modern medicine has been good to both of us, but enough chit chat.” She brought them back on topic. “You’re looking for the Liberation Movement?”

“We hit several of their stash houses, confiscated weapons, and took out a few operatives, but some got away,” Coop relayed. He doubted Hailey and her people didn’t know about that already.

“The people you found in the warehouse were the last of the Movement’s people. We picked up two more guys, but they’re not local. They were independent third-party suppliers,” Hailey informed. “We want the Movement stopped as much as you do. It took out some of our people as well, and it’s bad for business.”

“It looks like we’re on the same page then.” Coop gave her his best smile. “But I’m going to need the name of the guy you were with. He shot my friend, and as you said, that’s bad for business.”

Hailey’s cheeks might have flushed a bit, but it didn’t stay that way. “We’re not on the same page, but we’re reading the same book. We’re open to cooperation to get justice for our people, but after that…” she left the rest unsaid. Her eyes shifted like she was looking around to make sure the coast was clear before whispering the name Coop wanted, “Noah Grisham.”

“That’s great,” Coop clapped his hands in excitement and reached into his own pocket.

In a blur, Hailey had the pistol back in her hand and pointed at him. <Damn she’s quick.>

“Easy,” Coop slowly pulled out a folded up PAD. “Take this to contact us. We’ll share intel and coordinate any future operations so no one’s signals get crossed. Sound good?”

Hailey lowered the weapon, put her hand in her own pocket, and pulled out another PAD. “How about you take this PAD and contact us when you’re about to do something so we don’t cross paths.”

Coop rolled his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was get into a dick-measuring contest here. “How about we take each other’s PADs? This way we have multiple lines of communication open.”

Coop liked to think it was his award-winning smile that sealed the deal when Hailey took his PAD, and he grabbed hers. She didn’t say goodbye or anything as she rose from the bench and headed directly to the most crowded spot in the square. It was midway between Eve and Sullivan, and there was no way either would get to her in time before she descended into the underground subway system, got on a bus, or just walked away in the throng of people streaming through the area.

Coop wanted to call out for her to stop. He still had so much to say. Business was out of the way and he wanted to know what had happened with her. His feelings weren’t the same as they’d been on that day he’d left the PHA. He’d grown up a lot in some ways, not a lot in others, but she was still a part what had led him to this point in his life. Simply put, he wanted to catch up with an old friend.

“Should I take the shot?” The SGM’s comment snapped him out of that train of thought.

“Hold fire. Mission complete.” Coop subvocalized as he got up and headed in the opposite direction. “Let’s exfil and get with the S2.”

Coop was sure the PAD Hailey had handed him was full of passive surveillance tech, just as he was sure the PAD he’d given her was. The S2 needed to go through the PAD and pull the data it could. The police and military’s locations weren’t exactly a secret on New Savannah, but the criminal elements of Hailey’s organization probably were. If the S2 could get a hit on them, then they’d be killing two birds with one stone.

<I doubt it.> Coop didn’t think they’d get squat. It was a burner PAD with customized software loaded on after purchase. Hailey looked like she knew what she was doing, and that meant her people were legit.

That was good though. It meant the New Savannah Liberation Movement didn’t have long.

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PCS to Eden – Escape from New York

“We can’t keep going like this,” Bart heaved.

It wasn’t every day that you saw a Dominion struggle to draw breath, but today was that day for Ava and her small team. The fact that she wholeheartedly agreed with Bart’s assessment didn’t make her feel any better about their situation. Worst of all, their situation proved just how thoroughly the Amazons had planned for this day.

The three angels were being weight down…literally…by binding wards. Normally, these common wards would have less effect than a wet fart on an angel. There primary use was against humans and lesser creatures, but the Amazons had devised an ingenious use of them, and it would pose a problem when the Divine Host sought to retake Manhattan.

What Hippolyta and her people had done was layer binding ward after binding word in an ever increasing trap as it approached their headquarters and center of their power. Binding wards could be tailored to bind specific things: people, emotions, animals, even children. More than a few sorcerers had kept their budding teenage children bound to a home for a week when they were grounded. Ava and her team’s problem was that these wards were set to bind æther. It couldn’t collect the DNA of the universe, but it could cling to it.

At the moment, Ava had two thousand seven hundred and thirty one binding wards pulling at the fabric of her being and trying to pin her to the ground like a wrestler at Monday Night Smackdown. Since binding wards couldn’t be thrown down and powered overnight like that, Ava knew that Amazons had been carefully preparing for centuries. Manhattan was now a fortress.

Thankfully for this mission, Ava knew of an easy solution. “We need to do it.”

“Are you crazy?” Razael hissed as another binding ward snagged onto him and tried to pull him down. “That’s suicide.”

Ava was well aware of that, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. They needed to find an injured archangel that was trapped behind these binding wards, and that didn’t even count the other wards she’d seen. Luckily, binding wards couldn’t gather information. They were ‘dumb’ wards. They only conducted their primary mission. Surveillance wards were smarter than that, and she’d seen a few. These wards measured whatever their creator wanted them to measure: sex, age, color, race, height, weight, species, and that only scratched the surface. It made the latest facial recognition software look like crap, and best yet, the data was easily gathered and reachable for the Amazons. Since they were skilled ætherial craftswomen, Ava bet there was a central mainframe somewhere that was collecting and analyzing all this data. Ava and her increasingly winded companions were drawing too much attention.

“We don’t have a choice.” Or at leave Ava didn’t, so she did what she had to.

The easiest way to avoid a binding ward aimed at æther was to shed the æther. As a creature of æther, she couldn’t completely get rid of it, but she could make it so the binding wards, made to counter angels, wouldn’t detect her.

Aether started to leave Ava and return to Heaven. Even her Hand of God powered down until it resembled nothing more than a natural prosthetic. With that æther went most of her abilities as a Power. She was still stronger and faster than a human, but she was no match for an Amazon.

Once she completed the process she straightened, the tremendous pulling sensation was gone, and surveyed the area. She looked at Bart and Razael, and both of them looked back at her before shaking their head. She didn’t blame them. What she was doing amounted to allowing yourself to be killed. If she was slain by an Amazon, with the wards that were in place, she doubted she’d be able to reconstitute herself in heaven. That meant permanent death. On top of that, things weren’t looking good for the remaining men of NYC. Since Bart and Razael would effectively become human males, shedding their æther added a whole other level of proposed misfortune.

“Fall back to the rendezvous point. I’ll come with Gabriel once I find him. We might have to execute a fighting retreat, so I want you ready to go if we come in hot. Understood?” Both men nodded and, with barely hidden pain, made a one-eighty and headed back the way they’d come.

That left Ava all alone to find Gabriel. Thankfully, God, by way of Michael, had told her where to look. Binding wards might be able to trap æther, but nothing could stop prayers from reaching God’s ears.



Gabriel slipped in between the columns of books and breathed a small sigh of relief. The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building had avoided the destruction the leviathan had wrecked while making its way through Midtown. That was good because it was the establish rendezvous point for Gabriel is things went wrong. Things had gone spectacularly wrong.

This was the flagship branch of the public library and the architecture showed it. It was designed in the Beaux-Arts style and had symbolized the free and open access the knowledge for over a century. Over 530,000 cubic feet of marble had been used to construct the three floor building holding hundreds of thousands of books, art, photography, music and movies. Despite the decline of library systems with the advent of eBooks and commerce, this building had kept going strong. Now, it was virtually empty, the power was cut, and only a handful of dedicated employees were still present to protect the rare book collections that they believed were more valuable than their lives.

With his gifts, Gabriel easily avoided them as he slid between the stacks and found a quiet corner to wait. Michael was going to come he hoped. He’d seen the blow the beast delivered to his brother, and he didn’t envy the bruise that was going to leave in the morning, but he knew the leader of the Divine Host wouldn’t let this stand. He would come down on the Amazons with the full might of the Host. The only question was when, and if Gabriel would be in any shape to assist them.

Secure in the fact that he was in an isolated location a decent distance away from the leviathan and the Amazon’s HQ, the archangel gradually let his needs take over. With the æther shifting away from the Divine his body needed more natural processes to remedy his situation. So, after thirty minutes of semi-vigilant watching, Gabriel fell asleep.

He didn’t feel like he was asleep for more than five minutes when a loud CLANG snapped him back to consciousness. He checked an old clock nearby, not powered by electricity, and saw two hours had passed.

“Everyone up!” A powerful female voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. Gabriel felt that æther probing the building for occupants, and tried his best the shield himself from its reach.

He must have been successful because the search party of Amazon’s didn’t run straight to his location. Instead, they focused on the humans.

“You three…let’s go!”  A second voice ordered, and there was a scream.

Gabriel’s sense of duty demanded that he take action, but his rational mind told him not to be foolish. If he let them know his position now, then more would converge, capture, and maybe even kill him. Death was not something the archangel had feared in a long time, and its sudden presence was sobering. Despite logic, he felt deep shame when he thought about leaving those people to the Amazons. He couldn’t live with himself if he did nothing, so he slowly crept from his hiding place to get a better read of the situation.

His gift of spatial awareness worked to his advantage. He saw the angles and worked them toward his goal. As he crept through the dark library, he always stayed out of the two Amazon’s vision, while gaining the maximum amount of information possible. Both were armed with swords and guns. They had the three humans: two men and a woman, on their knees by the exit from the original room Gabriel had been hiding in. The men were gagged and hogtied like animals while the woman sat nearby crying. The Amazon’s didn’t pay her any attention, but they actively looked at the men with hateful-lust in their eyes. The men looked appropriately terrified.

Gabriel looked at the fear on their faces and knew he couldn’t leave them to be used as breeders and then slaughtered by their amazon children. He threw logic to the wind and worked on a plan. If he was lucky he could save the men and not alert other Amazon’s to his presence. He worked through the possibilities, ran through multiple contingencies, and sent up a last prayer to his father for assistance. Then he waited.

The opportunity to do something presented itself as the Amazons started to leave with their prisoners. They walked them down between two rows of books. The concealment wasn’t as good as a wall, but Gabriel squatted down, and rushed forward to get ahead of them. His gift did its job, and he had a few seconds to spare as he waited where the stacks ended.

<This is reckless.> His mind warred with his heart again, but he quickly stomped on it. <They have swords and guns. No one has ever said it’s a bad idea to bring fists to a gunfight because no one is stupid enough to do that in the first place.> His mind screamed at him not to do something stupid, but he was already committed.

To make himself feel better, he grabbed a thick book from the opposite stack. <Time to see if the pen is mightier than the sword.> It wasn’t the correct analogy, but it was the best he could come up with.

As the lead Amazon exited the walkway between the two stacks, Gabriel sprung at her. He used his natural strength as he torqued his core around. He used that power to bring the book from his right hip at an upward angle to catch the Amazon in the chin.

With a sickening CRACK the amazon’s head snapped back as she was picked up off her feet and launched into a bookshelf. It folded backward into the next stack as blood, shattered wood, and books of all different dimensions filled the air around them. The humans screamed, which only added to the chaos.

Thankfully, the two Amazons weren’t high on the pecking order or Gabriel would have been in deep shit. Instead, the other Amazon fumbled for her gun, but in such tight quarters it was the wrong decision. With everything going on between her and Gabriel, the sword was the better option. Gabriel grabbed the humans and swept them aside as he launched himself toward the remaining Amazon. She was able to get the pistol out of the holster and halfway on target before Gabriel tackled her. She still had her finger on the trigger, and the force of the blow to her gut caused on involuntary squeeze. The round went harmlessly into the ceiling as Gabriel drove his head upward into her chin. There was another sickening CRACK, but it didn’t put the woman down for the count. It did stun her, which allowed Gabriel to get the better position and pummel her head. After a few well-placed blows she went limp.

Both Amazon’s weren’t dead. The æther in their bodies would repair the damage, but their lowly status meant it would be slow going. He had at least a few hours, but he couldn’t kill them. They might be foot soldiers, but they would be tied into the Amazon’s ætherial network, and their deaths would set off alarms. That was the last thing he needed.  Meanwhile, the three humans just stood there frightened and wide-eyed until he cut the men’s bindings.

“Don’t say a word. Get out of here.” He gestured to the door and they scrambled away without even saying thank you.

Gabriel gathered the two bodies and dragged them deeper into the library before returning to his hiding spot. Eventually, someone would come looking for the missing Amazons, and in the off chance someone heard the shot, and came to investigate, he wanted to be able to repeat the ambush.

He just hoped someone from his team showed up soon.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 221

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Pooler, New Savannah System, United Commonwealth of Colonies


<I lost to this fucking guy?> Coop fumed.

Coop was understandably pissed. In his profession you needed to train like you fought. You couldn’t half-ass it, or you wouldn’t be able to cut it when it counted. His death in this training exercise only meant his V4 shut down, but he took it personally, and to finally meet the people that killed him only made it worse.

Coop tried to take a few deep breaths, but it wasn’t working too well. At Endex, the Commonwealth company had been defeated by the system defense company with the tank’s help. This was embarrassing, and the company’s LT and GYSGT were feeling it just as much as Coop. The Commonwealth forces were supposed to be the best, and getting beaten by a jumped up bunch of weekend warriors hurt.

The LT and GYSGT of the system defense company sure weren’t pulling any punches in their gentle ribbing of their counterparts, and the three people of the tank’s crew were merciless. As the HI support from the two companies, Eve and Coop sat apart from them, which helped Coop to not jump over the table and strangle one of the tankers.

Eve placed her hand over his, which was gripping the chair to the point of warping the polyplast frame. “Don’t be a sore loser. Learn from it. I don’t know about you but I sure as hell want to know how the tank survived your attack. I would have taken the same actions you did.”

Eve had just finished when the door slid open and the exercise graders, the SGM, and Thomas Gold walked in. The soldiers stood for the system defense CMDR and Commonwealth LCDR who held their evaluations in their hands. The SGM split off to the side and took a seat with Coop and Ben.

The review was detailed as the evaluators went over the operation step-by-step with the two company commanders. The Commonwealth LT was given good marks for his situational awareness and using the terrain to his advantage and outmaneuvering the system defense force. Despite the defense force’s victory, both the evaluators knew, and made it clear, that without the tank the defense force company would have been rolled up and defeated. Not much was said about the tank, and the company commanders and NCOICs were dismissed. The SGM, Thomas Gold, Coop, Eve, and the tankers remained.

“That was a hell of a show!” Gold had kept himself composed, but now that the others were out of the room, he couldn’t help but smile. “Sergeants, let me introduce you to retired Sergeant First Class Elysa McLamb, retired Command Sergeant Major Marcus Atwell, and retired Lieutenant Colonel Donald Southland.”

<Sergeant first class, command sergeant major and lieutenant colonel? That explains a lot.> Coop thought.

Just looking at the two men and one woman it was obvious they were old. All three had blue in their eyes, which judging from the rest of their look had been administered a long time ago and had run its course.  The LTC had more in common with a gnarled tree root than a human being. His skin looked more like worn, tanned leather than flesh. All three had white hair, and more than one had dental implants. Coop was surprised they’d been able to fight.

The retired part and their ranks made them even older. The Commonwealth’s rank consolidation into the rank structure of the larger navy wasn’t recent. It was probably going on a hundred and fifty years, but soldiers and marines had fought to keep their traditional ranks long after the Commonwealth’s formation.

All of that info pieced together gave Coop a better picture of the three people in front of him and why they were here. If Coop was reading the room right, the tankers were here at Thomas Gold’s request not the SGM.

“We recruited these three veterans for their valuable skills as we resurrect a lost form of combat,” Gold continued. “They’ve been involved in the creation of the Model One Patton Main Battle Tank for the last few months. Today was our first combat simulation, and as you can tell, it was quite successful.”

Coop bit down on his tongue. He’d been killed by a proof of concept, not even a real war machine.

“We’re all very interested to know how you’ve resurrected tanks and made them relevant to modern warfare.” The SGM kept his cool.

“Certainly,” Gold hit some buttons and holos sprang to life. “The Patton, or Patty, as the three tankers are affectionately calling her, is the combination of old and new. We’ve taken the expertise given by our three battle-hardened, former tankers and mirrored it with new technology gleaned from the Hegemony. Lieutenant Colonel, if you’d like to give us some historical prospective.”

“Sure, Sir.” The old man rasped. He sounded like he was on the verge of going into a coughing fit. “Tanks went out of style because they didn’t have defenses to stand up to weapons as they continued to modernize. They became hundred-ton moving coffins, and I should know. I saw most of my last command, a battalion of fifty-six tanks, manned by good men and women, pounded into submission without ever getting to fire a shot. Tanks primary mission has always been to have a heavy, maneuverable force that could take punches and dish it back out. When tanks lost the ability to take those punches, they became obsolete.” The old LTC’s somber expression broke into a big grin. “With Mr. Gold, and this new tech, I can now tell you tanks can take that punch again, and fuck up anyone trying to give it to them.”

“We knew tanks needed to be stronger than they’ve ever been, and the new gluon power sources and shield tech have made that a possibility.” Gold stepped back in to take over from the exuberant LTC before the guy had a stroke on the spot.

“I thought all of the grants from the government went to purchasing material for the news ships and personnel?” The SGM asked, careful not to give away more info about the SRRTs to the non-vetted tankers.

“Those funds were allocated according to contracts, but now that Gold Technologies is a licensed business in the Hegemony, we’ve started to make our own purchases.” Gold ignored the frown on the SGM’s face at the revelation and continued. “The Patton’s are our first solo project with the new tech, and the system defense force has been kind enough to let us put her through her paces during their training exercises.”

<Which is why we didn’t know about them going into this.> Coop surmised.

“Now, what we’ve done with the Patton’s is create a new mobile and protective platform to put superior firepower down range while supporting the regular infantry.” Gold turned on his salesman mode. “We’ve incorporated two layers of shielding into a Patton. The first layer is to protect the tank itself. As Sergeant Cooper learned firsthand, it is more than capable of shrugging off multiple hyper-velocity missile strikes. It would take repeated pounding by one of the HI’s 250mm cannons to break through those shields, and with counterbattery railguns and countermeasures, on top of anti-grav maneuverability, we’re confident the tank would be able to avoid attacks as well.”

Coop was impressed. He knew that simulated projections and the real deal were two very different things, but that left the elephant in the room.

“The big concern is still spaceborne capabilities,” Gold continued like he’d read Coop’s mind. “We think that same maneuverability protects the Patton’s from kinetic rounds. A direct hit would likely destroy the tank, but with the time in flight we’re confident in the tanks evasive abilities. With that covered, energy weapons become the focal point. Deployment will always need to be considered in systems where the Commonwealth doesn’t have control of the orbitals, but our tests suggest that the tank’s shield could survive a direct hit from a battlecruiser-sized warship and keep on coming. The dispersion of the beam weapons through the atmosphere is what makes us so confident in our speculation.”

<You think the tank can take a hit from a battlecruiser and keep on chugging. Dream on.> Coop didn’t believe the sales pitch, but the titan of industry was already moving on.

“The second layer of shielding is to provide cover to the trailing infantry forces from indirect fire; like what the good Sergeant Cooper tried to rain down on the system defense force during the exercise.” Gold gave Coop a nod. “The second shield isn’t as strong as the tank’s main shield, but it allows for adaptability to the mission. The shield can expand and condense from a few meters around the tank to one hundred and fifty meters. The more the shield is condensed, the stronger it is.”

“Tanks have been providing cover for infantry since their inventions. This is just an extension of that.” The retired CSM threw in his two cents. “I can also speak from personal experience that they handle like a dream. Anti-grav makes most terrain passable. The Patton’s are pretty light for tanks, only fifty-five tons, and can reach an impressive one hundred and eighty kilometers per hour at full speed. My aging back can also confirm they’re a smooth ride.” The CSM’s comment got a chuckle from the rest of the tank crew and Mr. Gold.

“Sergeant McLamb, do you want to talk about what the tank is offensively capable of.”

“Sure,” the SFC’s voice was surprisingly high-pitched. “As far as my experience indicates, the Patton is a lighter tank than has been fielded in the past. The main gun is only one hundred and twenty five millimeters, but it’s capable of firing several different types of armaments. You’ve got your standard fire-and-forget rounds, which can be anything from anti-tank, HE, to anti-personnel. It also has smart rounds, STRATNET guided to hit within a meter of a certain point. These are great to limit civilian casualties, but none of those two compare to the final mode. It’s the fucking shit.” The woman smiled at her other two crewmembers.

“We were able to have a research team do a walk through on a Hegemony planet…”

“You’ve had interaction on Hegemony worlds!” The SGM’s calm broke. “The Prime Minister has dictated that the government is going to make first contact with further races to ensure continuity of diplomacy!”

“I am well aware, Sergeant Major,” Gold didn’t look bothered by the senior NCO’s outburst. “It was a Twig storage planet. No new contact was made with any other Hegemony species, so we are within the Prime Minister’s edict.” He motioned for the SFC to continue.

“It’s called a gravitational cannon or something like that, but we call it the BitchSlapper, or BS for short.” Coop couldn’t help but laugh at the SFC’s pet name. “Laugh now,” she shot back. “It took you out in one shot.” Her comment sobered him up.

“The only downside is Patty only has a ten-round capability for the BS before it needs a serious recharge and can affect other systems. I don’t know the science behind it, I’m a gunner not a nerd, but it’s got something to do with using anti-grav to condense a lot of energy into something we can shoot out of the cannon. It’s a fire-and-forget projectile, and doesn’t look like much coming out of the tube, but when it hits…” the SFC brought her hand down on the table with a loud SMACK, “you’ll remember it. Just like when you’re momma smacked you upside the head for being a dumbass, Patty will smack an enemy into nothing.”

The SFC didn’t spend much time on the 8mm gun on the exterior hull, as well as the 20mm launcher, or the circular laser repeaters on each of the tank’s four corners. Coop paid attention to those repeaters. They could be used for offensive or defensive operations. He hated to admit it, but these new tanks were beasts.

<I’m still calling BS on the BS.> Coop put his foot down.

Gold must have seen the expression written on his face. “We’re doing some test fires in a few days over on Richmond Hill. You’re more than welcome to come. The Rear Admiral will also be in attendance. Once we get all of the kinks worked out of the system we’ll be taking orders from the Commonwealth.”

Coop didn’t know how he thought about that. Once the Commonwealth started fielding them, every other army would want them as well. Coop was comfortable with the status quo, and being the biggest motherfucker on the field of battle. A tank ended that monopoly, and put his ass at even more risk. That was the last thing he needed in his life.

His attention was pulled off Gold by his PAD chiming. One look at the number and another look at the SGM got him dismissed. This was the call he’d been waiting for.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 220

Hailey Armstrong

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

Hailey leaned back in her chair and sighed. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers and tried to will away the headache that threatened to conquer her. Normally, she’d be in her office back at the Oasis, but that wasn’t going to happen for a while. The cops were still on the scene.

Technically, she hadn’t done anything wrong. Prostitution was legal on New Savannah, she’d been tested and cleared by a healthcare professional, and she wasn’t wanted for any crimes throughout the federation. Some white collar, interplanetary task force somewhere might have a file on her, but she was relatively new to the game and thus an unknown.

That was why Coop showing up on her literal doorstep was so surprising…and frightening. Never in a million years, among the hundreds of billions of humans spread throughout the cosmos, did she expect to ever see him again. Even if she wanted to see him, and he her, the odds of that happening were slim to none. All those thoughts had passed through her head the moment she recognized him, which meant only one thing. He’d figured out what happened to his dad, and was there to kill her. That was why she’d called a Code Black.

The term was meant to let security know that there was a life in danger. It was different than a code red, a medical emergency, or a code blue, possible police informant in the house. She’d done what she could to help the situation by kicking Coop over the banister. The rest was up to security.

Hailey went to get to her feet and winced. Her ankle was swollen and throbbing. She might have succeeded in disrupting Coop’s assassination attempt, but it had cost her. She was pretty sure it was broken, and running around afterward hadn’t helped, but adrenaline was a hell of a drug and she’d only started feeling it after everything settled back down.

As if on cue, Hilda, Hailey’s immediate boss, and the boss of all PFH in Savannah City, walked in with a handsome man. The man immediately made his way to Hailey and started examining her ankle.

“What’s the situation?” Hailey ignored the man and let him work.

“The cops just left the scene. They gave our people that standard line of not leaving the planet and being available for future questioning. I’ve got a cleaning crew coming and we’ll be open for business tomorrow.” Hilda took a seat across the table from Hailey where the chair only groaned slightly under her weight.

“Good. I’m sorry for all of this. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.” Hailey felt an apology was in order, but Hilda waved it off.

“The universe is a much smaller place than people think. You’d be surprised how often you run into old acquaintances.”

Hailey was beginning to see that, and in her line of work that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. She nodded at her boss’ sage advice and checked her PAD when the silence lingered too long. She hit the banking icon on her home screen, scanned her GIC, and looked at her account. There wasn’t much there, but that wasn’t the number Hailey checked, it was the negative, red balance that drew her attention.

Despite all of the talk about being one, big, happy family back at the academy, Hailey had been given a rude introduction to the fact this was a business at graduation. As promised, she was making good money as an Asset Protection agent, plus her bonus of the revenue from her old tower after completing her mission, but that was just loose change compare to her debt.

Putting her through the academy and getting her all the enhancements wasn’t cheap. She was millions of dollars in debt to PFH, but she had all the time in the world to work it off. Already, she’d shrunk the number, and every cent of her bonus was going to the debt. If tonight had any silver lining then it was the money she’d made from the pirate.

It wasn’t without a cost. She pushed his debasement of her to the back of her mind and focused on the dollar signs. As was customary, the client paid upfront for the services. For her company and the cost of the room, Mr. Grisham had coughed up one hundred and twenty thousand dollars before even getting her into the room. That money was held by the establishment until services were complete, or in the case they weren’t, the client had to recoop the unused balance within forty-eight hours. So far, Mr. Grisham hadn’t come forward to reclaim the rest of his money, and she was prayed he wouldn’t. Hailey’s cut as a newbie was only fifteen percent of her cost, not including the room, but fifteen grand was fifteen grand. If he came back it was only going to be about three.

Hailey pulled her attention away from her PAD with a grimace when the man injected her ankle with something. Within a minute the throbbing subsided. The man watched his medical PAD for a full five minutes before giving a nod the Hilda and leaving. The man hadn’t said a word, or asked a question of Hailey during his entire visit.

“What are we going to do about this problem?” Hilda waited for the door to close before she broached the topic.

It was the logical direction of the conversation. Coop was a threat that needed to be eliminated. He’d cost the business easily into the six figures with his attempt on her life, and they couldn’t have any more disruptions in her business.

“First we need intel,” Hailey began. “Last time I saw him he’d just enlisted in the Infantry. Is he working by himself? Is this Commonwealth sanctioned? Did he get the boot and is now work for another outfit? We need answers to all the questions before we make a move. We can’t go kicking off a war.”

Hilda simply nodded because neither of them had any intel on Mark Cooper from the last year. She was about to say something when a knock on the door interrupted them. “Enter,” was all she had to say.

One of the security guards from the Oasis popped his head in. “Excuse me, ladies, but the guy who killed Tony just stopped back by the club.”

That was another thing that had not endeared Coop to the rest of the PFH, and only confirmed Hailey’s theory that he was there to kill her. He’d killed one of the guards, Tony, when he came to her rescue.

<Not just killed,> Hailey reminded herself. <He blew Tony’s fucking head off.> She hadn’t seen the aftermath since she was retreating to their nearby safe house, but the crime scene photos their contact in the local PD sent their way were graphic enough.

“What did he want?” Hilda was pretty low key, despite the persona she put on for guests, but killing one of her people would get the boss, also a former Asset Protection senior agent, blood boiling.

“He wanted to talk with her.” He pointed his finger at Hailey. “He tried to give me a PAD, but I wouldn’t take it, so he gave me a number.” He held up a piece of polyplast. Hailey couldn’t help but look confused. “Oh, he also told me to tell you this was no bullshit. He was pretty insistent that I relay the no bullshit thing.”

That made Hailey sit up straighter. Hilda noticed. “What are you thinking?”

Hailey didn’t answer for a moment as she concocted a plan. “I think I should call the number. I’ll see what he wants. He might slip and give us some information, which will save us time and money, or he won’t give up anything and we’re right back here. Either way, it can’t hurt.”

Hilda only waited a moment before nodding. “Keep me up to date.” Never a micromanager, Hilda took her leave to go back to the club and supervise the cleanup. They needed to open back up and start making money.

There were also reports to file with their superiors. Hilda might be her immediate boss, but there was a senior agent in charge of all the Asset Protection agents on the planet. Hailey needed to write up a threat assessment to her. If things continued to go south they might need to pull more agents from across the planet to get this job done.

<I’ve already killed one Cooper, might as well get the father-son combo.> Hailey tried to psych herself up for the potential action, trying to convince herself that it was no big deal.

No matter how hard she tried, she knew she was lying to herself. Walter was one thing. He was a step removed from her. Coop was something entirely different. Still, she knew if it came down to it she’d pull the trigger. It would just be living with the consequences that would be a problem.

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PCS to Eden – Reality Check

Gerry stood calmly with his hands clasped behind his back. As he looked out at the morning sky he took a deep breath and savored the smell of victory. For now, Charlotte was his, and the æther had responded accordingly. His throne was positioned at the center of it all, was drinking in the power, and was setting up defenses.

He hadn’t thought of it before, but thrones were intelligent things. Aside from the vast library of knowledge stored within, it also had the ability to accomplish tasks. All Gerry had to do was establish guidelines, left and right limits, and simply allow the throne to work.

<Now I see how Seere was able to run a Kingdom.> Some of the preprogramed commands from the former Infernal Lord were still loaded into the throne. He wouldn’t have been able to develop his own complex ætherial coding, so Gerry simply tweaked it to fit his own situation. In doing so, he was sure he’d asserted more control on the city in a day than the Divine had been able to since they defeated the Infernal incursion.

It wasn’t a moment too soon. Charlotte was not the jewel of a city it used to be. It still looked like the bombed out husk straight from post WW2 Europe, and wasn’t exactly a selling point for what he needed to do next. Still, Gerry had assigned priority to the airport in the throne’s queue, and it hadn’t disappointed. What would have taken months to fix had only taken a few hours, and now the private plane on final approach would have no trouble landing.

“How about our unwanted guests?” Gerry turned to Gaius.

The general, Brock, Jezebel, Jeb, and a few legionnaires were awaiting the jet’s arrival. The American military, which had declared a no fly zone over Charlotte, had tried to intervene when the jet started making its approach. Gaius had been tasked with handling it.

“We took out one of the choppers with a Stinger missile we pulled off the ambushed convoy. The others turned and made a beeline back for the base before we could engage. As per your orders, we made it look like some local human faction had gotten a hold of military-grade weapons. They won’t be expecting Infernal influence.”

“Good.” Gerry was manipulating the æther overhead so any satellites looking at the area were getting nothing but static. He was sure people at the Pentagon were scratching their heads trying to figure out what was going on. “What about the sorcerers?” He moved onto the next item of business.

“The man you released gathered the remaining locals to tell them of his meeting with you. He exploded right on time. Vicky’s people have recovered and catalogued the bodies. It wasn’t everyone that was resisting you, but well over half. We won’t have to worry about them any time soon.”

Gerry nodded. Since the Divine left, the local magical factions had started to make a play to regain control of the city. They’d faltered when Gerry took out the Divine garrison, and he carried that momentum through with his suicide bomber. Now, his reign was weakly opposed at best. Things were looking up.

The jet touched down smoothly. The roar of the engines reversing filled the air, but it never had to apply the brakes. It made a smooth turn at the end of the runway and headed toward the private hangars where the group waited. Gerry took another deep breath and smiled. What happened here today was another big step of his plan moving forward. The Remnents were a key source of power in this realm. Without them, taking the fight to Heaven would be nearly impossible. The Infernals needed their assistance. The man on the plane was a powerful Remnant, and as Brock’s grandfather, and grandson of the Primordial itself, he held critical sway it determining his group’s allegiance. Or at least that was how Gerry hoped it played out.

The plane pulled to a stop in front of them and began to power down. The door slid open and a staircase unfolded so two people could walk down. First came Vicky, who was grinning liked she’d won the lottery. Gerry took that as a good sign. Behind her was a powerfully built man who emanated power.

“Gramps!” Gerry had hoped for something a little more impressive, but Brock broke rank and ran to his grandfather.

“Bacchus!” The older Remnant smiled and opened his arms. Brock was physically bigger than Prometheus, but the older man didn’t budge when Brock hit him at a run. The two held their embrace for several seconds, and exchanged a few exaggerated pounds on the back before breaking apart. Gerry saw Brock wipe a tear of joy away before turning and leading Prometheus to Gerry.

“Gramps this is Gerry, Gerry, my grandfather, Prometheus.” While Brock made the introductions, Gerry and Prometheus sized each other up.

It was natural for men of their power to make snap judgments based on first impression because sometimes a first impression was all you got before the other guy tried to kill you. For that reason, both men relied on their intuition, and heeded their guts’ advice.

Gerry’s gut was telling him that Prometheus was amused by all of this. He’d obviously met Infernals before, and he seemed to respect Gerry, but not the mission Gerry was setting out to do. Prometheus probably had a few millennia on Gerry in the age department, so Gerry couldn’t hold it against him for his thoughts on Gerry’s plan. He’d likely seen something like it before.

<But not like this.> Gerry was sure of that. As far as he knew, this was the first time the Veil was failing between worlds since Eden’s conquest.

“It’s a pleasure to meet than man who facilitated my rescue,” Prometheus extended his hand and Gerry shook it.

Surprisingly, there was no macho-power contest of who could squeeze the others hand harder. The Remnant’s handshake was firm and powerful, but he wasn’t trying to prove anything. Gerry took that to mean a tacit acceptance of Gerry’s authority.

“It is an honored to meet such a revered member of your family, Prometheus.”

“Please,” Prometheus waved away the formality. “No one has called me Prometheus in a long time. Please call me Pete. It will draw less-questioning glances when there are more than just us present.”

“Very well, Pete. Would you please come with us? We’ll take you back to our headquarters so we can talk.” Gerry waved to the caravan of stolen military vehicles.

Pete looked around at the scarred cityscape and nodded. “Lead the way.”

Despite the favorable introduction, the ride passed mostly in silence. Pete spent most of his time looking out the window. Vicky quickly brought Gerry up to date on the old god’s incarceration and it all made sense. If Gerry hadn’t been outside in a literal eon, he would have been intrigued by what he saw as well. Coming back to Earth from Hell with an upgraded mind to help cope with the twenty-first century was difficult enough. He couldn’t imagine what Pete was thinking.

“I like what you’ve done with the place.” Pete spoke his first words as they passed the demolished Bank of America Corporate Center. Satan had nearly cleaved the building in two, and the top half had slid down to demolish the smaller buildings around it.

“You could chalk this up to a domestic dispute between the former tenants, but they’re gone now.” Gerry hoped Pete got the joke, but the Remnant didn’t laugh. “I took it from the people who seized control after they were finished with their brotherly spat.”

Pete just nodded as the convoy pulled into an underground parking garage. Gerry had set the throne to clearing the wreckage and setting up a secure place to establish a new demesne. Two legionnaires in stolen military gear were guarding the area from just inside the cleared opening. They nodded and waved the vehicles past when they saw Gaius in the front seat of the lead vehicle. Pete didn’t even glance in their direction, but he did shiver when the passed through the first layers of warding.

“Impressive,” Pete actually seemed genuinely fascinated as they went through layer after layer of warding. With all of the city’s æther, even a diminished amount, Gerry was able to set up formidable defenses quickly. It wasn’t as good as his former demesne, but the location more than made up for that.

With the utter destruction above ground it didn’t make any sense to set up shop there because it would draw way to much attention. Even if Gerry was able to cloak his new HQ, eventually they would have to move because rebuilding would make its presence known. That left the underground, and what better place than a parking ramp with a little adjustment.

The ramp was smack dab in the center of the city, so it was a perfect collection point. It went down five layers, but a little ætherial manipulation made it seem to anyone and everyone that it had only ever been four. With the natural protection of the Earth from human snooping, and warding to keep the Divine and magical community out, Gerry had the best of both worlds. He’d even allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to come through and verify that the four layer garage was stable and ready for use when the city got back on its feet. Once that was done, Coop had Jeb buy the company. So, on top of being the ætherial warlord of Charlotte, Gerry was also the parking king of downtown. He didn’t think much of it, but Vicky thought it was a pretty big deal.

All that was left for Gerry to do what manipulate the æther of the fifth level as he pleased. With quadruple the amount of space as the former penthouse demesne, Gerry didn’t have any idea how to fill it. He came from a time where a little went a long way. He’d put in his oversized bedroom, throne room, and master bathroom with a ætherial-built pump and sewage system that drew from the groundwater and snaked into the sewer so no one would ever be able to trace it to him on city plans. He had his war room, where he’d re-created the fine, wooden table and chairs in the colonial style of his youth. The table currently had a map of the battered city growing out of its center. Aside from the necessities, Gerry had allowed his underlings to provide input.

Jezebel wanted spare bedrooms for entertainment purposes, so several guest rooms were built, and she was allowed to design them. Jeb suggested a wine cellar and movie theater. Gerry had no need for such entertainment, but he knew the value of throwing his lieutenants a bone once and a while, so he made the upgrades. Gaius thought more tactically. The only way in and out was through the elevator. Gerry had masked the button for the fifth floor, and only allowed it to materialize for those who met an approved list of ætherial signatures. To make Gaius happy, Gerry carved several tunnels leading from the rooms to different parts of the city, as well as a main tunnel that led to a demolished club that Vicky owned. Vicky was the only Soulless allowed to know about it. If anyone else found out they would pay with their life, and Vicky might lose an inch or two of her tongue for blabbing.

Lono would have wanted a big kitchen, so Gerry installed that in memory of the gluttonous Infernal. When all was said and done, Gerry had the best piece of real-estate that no one would ever hear of, and he was fine with that.

They parked the stolen military vehicles at the entrance to the elevator, and everyone packed inside. Gerry made the space swell so everyone could fit comfortably, or at least that was what he wanted them to think. He really wanted space to maneuver if things went sideways. Thankfully, nothing did, and they reached the demesne in peace.

“Impressive,” Pete repeated as they stepped into the foyer area. Gerry could tell the old god liked the decorating, but he could also sense hesitation in him. If Gerry was a betting man, he’d wager it was from spending a thousand years imprisoned in a cave.

“Thank you, and please have a seat.” The legionnaires disarmed and left to entertain themselves while Gerry and his lieutenants led the remnants to the war room.

Pete only gave the map a quick glance as he plopped down in a chair. It groaned slightly under the unexpected weight, but it held. Gerry made a note of that. Pete was a big guy, not as big as Brock, but Brock’s frame didn’t elicit the same response as he took a seat. That meant something.

“I would like to start by thanking you for rescuing me from my imprisonment,” Pete began before Gerry could even get settled. “I am eternally grateful, and in your debt,” Gerry couldn’t help but grin when those words came out of Pete’s mouth, “but I know what you are planning, and I know it won’t work.”

The smile on Gerry’s face faltered before he could regain control. He knew Pete saw it, so he didn’t try to hide it. “I’m not sure you understand the situation, Pete.” Gerry put a little iron in his tone, and Brock perked up a bit. “This isn’t like anything tried before. The Veil between the realms is collapsing. I helped make that happen. Cities all over are swinging in favor of Infernal over Divine.” A TV, which took up a good portion of the wall, flashed on and showed the destruction in New York City. In addition, there was chaos in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, and a slew of smaller cities and capitols. The Infernals were pushing hard to take advantage of the rift between realms, and they were gaining ground for the first time in recorded history. They were playing offense not defense, and the momentum was palpable.

Pete watched it all calmly, and Gerry could see he didn’t have the old god convinced. “I give it a few days before the Divine Host counterattacks,” Pete surmised. “I’ve fought against these guys. I’ve seen Michael at work, and he isn’t going to cede territory to you so easily without a plan. I bet right now the Infernal Lords in charge of those armies are drunk on victory. They’re going to overextend themselves, stretch their supply lines too far from their ætherial power sources, and that is when the Divine will hit back in force. You might retain some of the smaller cities and capitols, but you won’t hold the major military, industrial, economic, and cultural centers.”

“We could if we had help,” Gerry could sense he wasn’t going to win an argument head on with Pete, so he played into the hand Pete said the Infernals were being dealt. “If we had your people by our side then we could hold against the counterattack, and then we’ve got a stalemate.”

“No you don’t,” Pete stated so matter-of-factly that it caught Gerry by surprise.

“Of course we do,” Gerry countered.

“No you don’t,” Pete said more forcefully and sighed. “In all of this strategizing you all are forgetting the most crucial piece on the board.” Pete raised a finger and pointed up. “God!  If God wants to get involved this is all over.”

“He hasn’t involved himself before,” Gerry tried to parry the Remnants statement, but he could hear the uncertainty in his own argument.

“But like you said, this hasn’t happened before. The Infernals haven’t pushed so far into Eden before. The Veil between realms hasn’t been broken. My people joining your fight will only bring God into the fray, and then he will punish all of us.”

“The Infernal Lords will stand united against him: Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Belial, Abaddon, Leviathan, Lilith, Cain, Moloch, Azazel, Frigg, and Asmodeus along with all their Duxes and legions will stop God.” Gerry had been so full of righteousness at the beginning of his pitch, but he heard it peter out as he finished. At those last two words, ‘stop God’ he realized how foolish it all sounded, and he knew Pete saw that.

“You can’t stop God. Satan is a powerful being, as are the other Infernal Lords. I never fought the Prince of Darkness personally, but my relatives died by his hand in the War for Eden. Despite that, and despite all the power those twelve lords can bring to the table it still won’t be enough.” Pete leaned back in his chair. “Satan is under the delusion that because he came close in his rebellion that he will be able to take on a ready and waiting Primordial. The King of Hell’s hubris has stoked his passion for revenge against his maker since his banishment, and he’s pulled the rest of the Infernal Lords with him on that quest.” Pete abandoned leaning back and leaned forward to add seriousness to his next statement. “But now that he is getting close to threatening the real balance God has been willing to accept, I don’t see any reason for him not to squash Satan like a bug. Believe me that’s all he’ll need to do. If Satan get obliterated the rest of the Infernals will scamper back to Hell with their forked tails between their legs. No offense,” Pete shrugged.

Gerry didn’t take any offense. He didn’t completely believe Pete. Lifetimes of Hell’s indoctrination to their mission against Heaven wouldn’t allow that, but the old god’s logic had started to crack Gerry’s conviction. That was saying a lot when his last few centuries of existence had been for the purpose of taking the fight to Heaven.  Gerry couldn’t deny that Pete was a reliable source. He’d seen Primordials duke it out, and if he was saying the fight was pointless then he had to lend some credence to those words. That was enough to shake anyone’s beliefs.

Pete resumed leaning back, and despite the news he was delivering, he managed to smile. “Of course, there is still a chance.”

<Oh you’re good.> Gerry couldn’t help but give the Remnant credit where credit was due. He’d grabbed Gerry hook line and sinker.

“What chance do we have against God if the King of Hell and all the other Infernal Lords won’t be able to stop him?” Gerry came off a little bitter, but Pete didn’t seem to mind.

“You’re all forgetting another crucial thing.” Pete swept his gaze around the table. “Satan appointed himself King of Hell, but he’s not really the king.”

It took Gerry a second to process what Pete was saying, and then he couldn’t help but sigh. “The primordial that created Hell is long gone. No one has seen it in literally forever. Beelzebub was born of Hell and even he admits he’s never seen or heard from its creator.”

“Have you looked everywhere?” Pete asked.

“Me personally…no, but I’m sure other have.” Gerry felt a little stupid with that answer, and he could see Pete had a point.

“You want me to help you defeat God and all that jazz,” Pete swept his hands to encompass the living map on the table. “This is me helping you. You will not defeat a primordial without another primordial. Since my creator is dead, and God is the one you’re trying to kill, that only leaves one possibility.”

“There are others,” Gerry stated, and saw a flash of surprise on Pete’s face. The Remnant clearly knew there were others. He just didn’t think Gerry knew.

“True,” he tried to play off the surprise, “but their realms are far far away. They aren’t layered like ours are. They don’t want to be found, and someone unfamiliar with their creations is unlikely to find them. You’re more likely to wander aimlessly for eternity or until someone takes mercy on you and ends your suffering.”

“What if Hell’s primordial doesn’t want to be found?” Gerry asked the logical follow up question.

“That’s a risk we have to take.” Pete shrugged matter-of-factly. “Even if it doesn’t want to be found, at least you know the lay of the land. You won’t be lost in oblivion to live out your days confused and alone.” Since it sounded like Pete was talking from personal experience, Gerry had to take his word for it.

“So, we’re settled!” Pete slapped the table. “You’re off to Hell to find the one being in creation that has a chance to take on God.” The Remnant sounded like he was suggesting that Gerry go out for tacos.

Despite the revolutionary claims that had conflicted Gerry’s believe in his life’s purpose, he couldn’t help but agree with the old god. “I guess we’re headed back to Hell.”

“We?” Pete looked confused.

“It’s your idea. You’re coming with me.” Gerry smiled as Pete paled. “Don’t worry. It isn’t as bad as they say.”

Gerry made Pete believe the statement, but the truth was he had no idea what Seere’s old kingdom looked like, and they would be going to Seere’s old kingdom. Something Pete had said triggered a flash of insight in the recesses of Gerry’s mind, and with nothing else to go on, it was as good a place as any to start looking.

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