Two Worlds – Chapter 200

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A weekend,” Coop answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 199

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

“Sergeant?”

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

“Sergeant?…SERGEANT!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That means assassination,” Mike whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Carol,” Coop sighed.

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

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PCS to Eden – Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This room is mine now,” he commanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bring me a map!” He ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Other Infernals.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s…” Elisa was lost for words.

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

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

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

Previous

Two Worlds – Chapter 198

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 “How can you let your corporate overlords control us like this? They’re taking away all of our freedoms!”

“How can you be so naïve not to understand the realities of the galaxy? If we don’t stand with the Commonwealth then we lose that level of protection and what little autonomy we have. Then, we become a tasty snack for whatever smaller power wants to eat us up. Do you want to be absorbed by the New Caliphate, the Maccabbee Alliance, or Indian Empire?”

Coop watched as the two protesters closest to him yelled at one another over a hundred other voices. The voting center, which just a few days ago had been a run-of-the-mill rec center, on the corner of a scenic park and no one gives a fuck, had now become ground zero for the quintessential issue of this election cycle: should New Savannah remain in the Commonwealth.

Realistically, it wasn’t even an issue. The Commonwealth wouldn’t let the valuable planet go, the Representatives wouldn’t vote to allow them to secede, and Coop would end up back here doing something like the Rogue Island operation that had turned into a shit show; hopefully with better results.

It was an issue to the hundred plus protesters and counter protesters with holographic images lighting the space around them. Coop was a little sickened by the whole thing. By legitimizing the question of secession, which all the talking heads were now discussing, they were allowing the terrorists to win. People who weren’t thinking about it before were thinking about it now, and in Coop’s experience, some people were better off not thinking. They needed to live their comfortable little lives, on their idyllic little planet, because they wouldn’t like what they saw when they exited their little safe space.

<They’ll eat you up is right.> Coop knew there were sharks out there, and if they smelled blood, they would tear a chunk out of New Savannah’s ass without a second thought.

“You…you…yeah…you, you corporate puppet. How do you sleep at night?” It took Coop a second to figure out the dude was talking at him. The protester was pointing an accusatory finger at him like he was identifying a perp in a lineup.

The smart thing would have been for Coop to keep his mouth shut, but Coop rarely did what was smart. He turned so he was facing the guy, saw the recognition dawn on the dude’s face that he was about to be addressed, and then let fly with the first comment that came to mind.

“With your mom,” Coop answered casually.

“Seriously?” Mike asked over TACCOM as the guy ranted and raved over the comment while the other group laughed at him. “You just had to go there.”

“Yep, because it’s chow time in ten, and we’re done here,” Coop smiled behind his helmet.

The three hour romp with Aiko felt like a lifetime ago, and it had been a second lifetime since their last session. Damn if that girl wasn’t the most enthusiastic, and flexible, person he’d ever met. She’d kept him enticed for the entire time they were together, and when he walked out of the room he had a crick in his neck, an ache in his back, and a slightly-painful empty sensation in his nuts. But that was par for the course with Aiko. Now, he was looking forward to seeing her again after this shift. The rest of the SRRT was arriving soon, and they’d begin training, so Coop would get to see her everyday…and possibly every night.

Despite it being the end of the shift, Coop kept his eyes peeled. If the New Savannah Liberation Movement still had eyes or ears in the police department then they would know when the shift change was occurring. Since that was when the defenses were at their most vulnerable, that was when they’d hit, if they were going to strike again. The governor was cracking down hard on the officially-branded domestic terrorist organization. The designation gave him healthy latitudes to deal with people associated with the group, and he was taking full advantage of it. Anyone within five blocks that had even uttered the phrase “Liberation for New Savannah” had been questioned by the planetary police.

The next ten minutes was tense, but it passed without incident. Coop spotted the Spyder on the horizon bringing the relief team before the team leader contacted him on TACCOM. It was another SGT from Charlie Company. Coop could tell from his tone that it irked the guy to call Coop a fellow SGT, but Coop really didn’t care about that right now. His mind was on the meatloaf the corporate DFAC was serving for dinner. He was hoping for a good meal, a solid eight hours, and maybe a romp between the sheets before he had to report to his new SRRT gig. He still had reservations about getting sliced up into molecules and transported through space, but he didn’t have much of a choice, and some stress relief activities seemed like an appropriate coping mechanism.

The handover to the new team was brief. Coop was with Mike on the perimeter while Nickelbaucher stood guard inside. There was no one voting today, so the voting center administrators weren’t there to watch the machines, but construction guys were patching the roof before the general election started. Nickelbaucher just made sure they didn’t tamper with anything.

With the handover complete, Coop hopped into the Spyder and rode back to base with the rest of his team. He made sure to send his finished evaluation report of Nickelbaucher’s performance to the LT, the NCOIC, and Nickelbaucher himself. It was up to the Battalion Commander whether or not to promote the PFC to CPL, and Coop’s evaluation was an overwhelming positive. Not only had the PFC been his number two throughout training, and taken the brunt of watching after Sterns, he’d also performed admirably in the retreat at New Lancashire. Coop had reviewed the footage from the PFC’s armor before writing up the report. Everything Coop had seen, heard, and experienced with Nickelbaucher said the guy was going places. Coop expected to see stripes on the guys CMU’s in ten years if he played his card right.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” was all Nickelbaucher said, and it was all Coop wanted him to say. He’d still see the guy, they just wouldn’t be working together anymore.

“Tell the rest of the team it’s been fun.” Coop said his goodbye as he walked down the Spyder’s rear ramp.

“I don’t think ‘fun’ would be the best word to describe it, but I’ll relay the sentiments.” Nickelbaucher removed his helmet, gave Coop a respectful nod, and walked off.

“You just successfully completed your first command assignment, Sergeant Cooper.” Mike clapped Coop on the back. “Any words of wisdom for us lowly grunts?”

“If that’s a command assignment then my last name is Gold,” Coop chuckled. “I babysat two guys with a third to help me out. Just make sure they don’t kill themselves and you can count it as a win.” Coop relayed the sage advice as they hit up the armory, turned in their Busses, and stripped out of their armor.

They smelled like a funky ass crack that had been left to boil in the hot sun for eight hours, but that wasn’t going to stop Coop from getting his meatloaf. He had priorities, and a shower wasn’t at the top of that list. The DFAC was full of soldiers, a few spacers, and a mismatch of corporate employees. Each corporation had their own dining facility, but those places tended to cost money. The facility DFAC was paid by the Commonwealth, and the grub was free to anyone with a valid GIC. Coop scanned his at the automated station and pushed toward the buffet. It was either his size or stench that parted the throng of people, and he really didn’t care which it was as long as he got his meatloaf.

They’d arrived a little after the rush, but there were still two steaming piles of meat left. Coop grabbed both of them, because he wasn’t going to leave Mike hanging, and headed to a table. Mike joined him a second later, and they both dug in without another word. Standing around for hours might not seem exhausting, but it could be. Coop needed to refuel for what came next.

<Speaking of…> he thought as a familiar face plopped down next to him, and immediately pinched with disgust.

“What the hell, dudes. You smell like something crawled inside me, rotted up nice and good, then I shat it back out.” Aiko pinched her nose between two fingers.

“Hey, I’m eating here,” Coop retorted.

“I’m surprised you can get anything down sitting in the cloud of ass that is permeating everything. They’re going to have to break out some industrial cleaning solvent when you two leave.” Aiko didn’t even touch her food.

“I need the calories if you want an encore.” Coop grinned and wiggled his eyebrows at her.

“Ahhh isn’t that sweet,” she cooed. “You think you can hang with me two nights in a row.” Coop didn’t know if that was an insult or a challenge, and he never got to find out. “Too bad, we’re reporting downstairs in an hour.” Aiko showed of the bio-luminescent glow on the underside of her wrist. “You boys had better clean up, or the new boss is going to have a field day. I heard he’s a hard ass.”

“To spacers, every infantryman is a hard ass.” Mike joined the verbal sparring.

“I prefer an infantryman with something else hard,” Aiko winked. “Now, I’m going to eat over there so I can actually get this down. See you later, boys.” She got up and moved to another table to eat.

“I can’t believe you’re hitting that.” Mike actually sounded jealous.

“She gets to hit this,” Coop countered, knew he was the lucky one, but would never admit it.

They scarfed down the rest of their meal and headed back to their quarters. The corporate guys did it up right. They each had their own room, but best of all was that they had their own shower and shitter. Not having to scrub your balls in front of a dozen other dudes, or have them watch you combat drop a load, was a luxury no one outside the military really understood.

Freshly showered, freshly shaved, and with a new pair of CMUs, Coop made sure to look himself over in the mirror one last time. He’d learned the hard way that first impressions were important, and if Aiko was right about this new squad leader being a hard ass, then Coop didn’t want to give him any extra ammunition. If they guy was being pegged to lead an SRRT then he had to know his shit, and if he knew his shit, he’d be doing his homework on the team members. Coop’s own record wasn’t full of glowing recommendations, so he wanted to make sure he was squared away for the first meeting. He’d be able to slack off a bit the more he got familiar with the guy, the new team, and everyone’s styles, but right now he needed to look the part of the good soldier.

Coop met up with Mike in the hallway and it was clear he was thinking the same thing. “So, what do you think they’re going to have us do?” Coop asked as they made their way toward the central structure and the secure labs beneath it.

“Probably more of what we’ve done, just suckier. It’s going to be R&S level suck we’re going to have to wade through. They aren’t going to give these assignments to normal grunts. They’re going to need people who can really do some damage if they’re going to get their bang for their buck on these things.”

“Great.” Coop wasn’t too excited about that. He was comfortable in his HI role. He didn’t want to be all super-duper soldier boy now. Those die hards volunteered for the R&S assignments for a reason. You had to be a little crazy to do that shit.

“I bet we’ll get some cool new gear though. They aren’t gonna put us in one of the best ships in the fleet and give us V2s. Hopefully they’ve got something put together that will actually allow us to scratch the paint on those Windsor mechs.

Coop wasn’t holding his breath. If the Ministry of War was anything like the PHA bureaucrats, then it was like pulling teeth to get any extra funding out of them. Still, it was nice to imagine, and Coop imagined piloting one of those big-ass mechs into battle as they rode the big lift down below the surface of the planet.

The scene was virtually the same when they arrived as the first time Coop had been down here. Engineers and techs were swarming over Argo like ants, and there was a group of people standing next to it. Aiko was in that group, but she looked like a midget compared to everyone else. Coop easily recognized the four newcomers. They all had bags sitting on the ground next to them, and they were all big, HI level big; even the two whose asses clearly identified them as female.

<I’ve always liked a challenge.> Coop knew he’d likely fail, but there was no reward without a little risk.

“Cooper, Enders, move your asses!” SSG Hightower barked. He was standing next to the LT and LCDR Gold. The LT looked like someone had fucked her good last night. She was all smiles, but the LCDR might not have been the one doing the boning based on his expression.

“Cooper, Mark Cooper?” A voice from the past stopped Coop in his tracks. That voice had chewed him a new asshole on a few occasions, and he’d never expected to hear it again.

“Gunney?” Coop heard the shock in his own voice.

“Sergeant Cooper?” GYSGT Cunningham turned around and nodded toward the chevrons on Coop’s CMUs. “It appears I got into the infantry at the wrong time. It took you a year to make E5, it took me over twenty to make E7. There is something wrong with that picture.”

The GYSGT’s face was still beautiful and unyielding, but Coop thought he saw a smile twisting her lips upward.

“Ain’t this a reunion for the books,” Mike smiled, and Coop followed his eyes to the other woman standing next to the GYSGT.

If your heart could literally skip a beat, not that corny shit in trashy romance novels that gets a girl’s panties in a bunch; but actual, physical cardiorythmic skipping, then Coop was pretty sure it happened. He tried to stop his jaw from dropping and failed. Then he tried to keep his eyes from darting to Aiko and back.

Epic fail.

Eve Berg regarded Coop like she wasn’t sure what she was looking at. Then she followed his eyes. She did a couple back-and-forths, just like Coop, but when her eyes settled back on him her lips twisted in a most unwanted direction.

“Sergeant Cooper, you remember Sergeant Berg.” GYSGT Cunningham was taking too much pleasure in the moment as Eve scowled at Coop for the first time in the better part of a year.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 197

Benjamin Gold

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

Ben moved quickly around the apartment, but “apartment” was a bit of an understatement. Ben was in the penthouse of the large Gold Technologies building located at the center of the defense complex. The space was reserved specifically for major shareholders to use when visiting the planet, and as a Gold, Ben had a right to it. He could have lived in the officer’s barracks with all the other soldiers and spacers assigned to the planet, but it was probably best that he didn’t.

His winds of fortune in the fleet had shifted, and there was nothing he could do about it. He knew he’d done the right thing when he strong armed RADM Nelson into evacuating New Lancashire. He’d seen what the Star Kingdom’s forces were capable of, and he wasn’t going to let tens of thousands of men get slaughtered for no reason. He’d thought out the legal consequences on the spot when he made his decision, but he didn’t consider how he would be looked at by the rank and file.

Someone had to be the scapegoat for the defeat, and Ben had offered himself up on a silver platter. By some miracle, he’d been allowed to keep Argo for the time being, but he knew Stillwater had orders to get rid of him when the opportunity presented itself. It sucked, it was wrong, Ben was pissed, but he’d come to accept it. If anything, the sting was going to be even worse when he couldn’t see Jacobi anymore.

Ben hurriedly placed two candles on the table and a pair of wine glasses. The candles were old-school wax, not the modern polyfibers most people used. The glasses were real glass too. The penthouse was stocked with luxury items to ensure the guests retained their lavish lifestyle.

<A lifestyle I might be returning to sometime soon,> Ben thought, as he took a lighter and flicked it with his thumb. The polyfiber candles could light themselves, but there was primal satisfaction in creating fire with your own hands that he couldn’t pass up. After a few clicks the yellow flame ignited and he held it for a few seconds over each wick.

It caught, and the smell of lavender began to permeate the air around the table. Everything was set for the date. The chef was in the kitchen preparing the meal, Ben was taking care of the wine, and the server would come out with their courses when Ben gave the signal. This was something he never would have been able to engineer as lowly LCDR Gold, but as Benjamin Gold, it was expected.

He didn’t want to think about what was going to happen to his naval career. He expected someone with four or five golden stripes to torpedo it. He’d written a few emails to now ADM Helms in First Fleet for advice or guidance, but hadn’t received anything back. Ben didn’t think he would be hearing anything. The ADM was smart enough to see a sinking ship and not attach himself to it. He was still a new ADM, and he wasn’t going to ruffle any feathers in his new position.

All of that left Ben totally fucked, and at the mercy of people who wanted to sweep him under the rug and forget he existed. He wasn’t going to let that happen. He’d resign his commission and take up his place in Gold Technologies before letting someone completely sideline him. The fact that he was willing to throw away everything he’d worked so hard to achieve said a lot about how important he thought the near future was, and how much he thought he could contribute. He still had a lot to offer. He’d been thoroughly involved with the Star Kingdom’s phony peace process back on New Lancashire. He would have called Churchill an almost-friend if his people weren’t backstabbing traitors, but that didn’t negate everything he’d learned from the man during their many conversations and negotiations.  Ben had also seen the enemy in action, which was the entire reason he was on New Savannah.

He pushed all of that to the back of his mind as he checked his watch. He had five minutes before Jacobi was expected to arrive, and she was always on time. A quarter of her life spent making time hacks for the infantry tended to do that to a person, so it was a bit of a surprise when the bell chimed early. Ben had spent several years under those same time management requirements, so he was all set to go already. He checked himself in the mirror to make sure he looked good, he gave the table a once over, gave the waiter a thumbs up to bring the wine out in a minute, and went to answer the door.

“Hello, J…” Ben stopped dead in his tracks, and his mind actually froze in surprise. “Dad?”

In the doorway to the penthouse stood Thomas Gold, President and CEO of Gold Technologies, owner of worlds, and one of the richest and most powerful men in the galaxy.

“You’re actually surprised to see me?” the elder Gold’s lips rose in a smile, and it wasn’t because he was seeing his son for the first time in nearly six months. It was because he’d caught Ben by surprise.

Ben’s mind recalibrated on the spot to the tests his father liked to give his children. “I should have expected you’d show up,” Ben answered after a second and stepped aside to let him in. Technically his dad owned the place.

“Some of the most ground breaking technological innovations in the Commonwealth is happening a kilometer from this penthouse, and I’ve pulled a lot of strings to make sure Gold Technologies is a part of it.” Thomas was followed by a small entourage of people. Half a dozen of them were security in black smartcloth suits.

Ben noticed Curtis among them, and nodded to the retired SEAL. Curtis returned the gesture before continuing toward the bedroom with some mysterious cases. Ben didn’t even get to complain as they quickly moved all of his stuff out of the master and into one of the smaller guest rooms. Thomas always got the biggest room in the place, that was how he operated, and it even involved throwing out his own flesh and blood.

“Please, go right ahead.” Ben grumbled as he sat back down at the table. Jacobi hadn’t even shown up yet and the date was officially ruined.

<Jacobi!> As covertly as possible, Ben pulled out his PAD and went to send an abort message to her, but her punctuality got the best of him.

The door chimed again, and six hands went to weapons concealed on the security guards’ persons. “Stand down.” Ben waved to them all as he went to answer the door. “I had plans.”

“I bought a bottle of that shitty…” Jacobi stopped her joke mid telling when she saw the fire-team-sized element in the room watching her closely.

“Sorry,” Ben was sure his eyes and face conveyed the apology much better than words ever could. “My dad dropped by unannounced.”

“Dad?” Jacobi looked around Ben to see Thomas manipulating a set of holos that had spontaneously sprung up around him. “Oh my god…”

Befitting his position, Thomas Gold was a bit of a rock star like any truly successful business mogul before him. Ben didn’t judge Jacobi when her eyes went as big as saucers and he could see the fan girl in her start to come out, but he couldn’t hide the irritation on his face.

“Who is it?” Thomas asked as he swept his arm and the screens disappeared.

“This is my friend Lieutenant Jacobi Wentworth.” Ben didn’t know if they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They hadn’t set any labels to what they had, and the fact they were sleeping together regularly didn’t matter. “Jacobi, my dad, Thomas Gold.”

“Sir…I…sir…it’s an honor,” Jacobi stumbled over her words as she went to shake his hand. The security people shadowed her the whole way, and looked ready to take her down at a moment’s notice. “I’m a huge fan of your company’s work in nanotech. I’ve even have a few of my own theories about their usage in neural capacities.”

“I know.” Thomas Gold smiled back at her and shook her hand. “My son forwarded some of your proposals to some of our programmers and they’re intrigued.”

Now it was Jacobi’s turn to look surprised. Ben just shrugged when she looked back at him. That was one of the reasons he’d gone the extra mile on their date tonight. He wanted to tell her the good news.

“I…” Ben didn’t get a change to finish, because she crossed the room and planted her lips firmly against his. “Um…you’re welcome.” He didn’t know what else to say when she pulled away.

“You shouldn’t have. I didn’t have anything formally prepared yet.” Despite that, she was smiling.

“I know it’s your passion, and the developers here are willing to work with you when we’re not training, so at least you guys can build a foundation before whatever happens happens.” Ben kept it intentionally vague due to their company.

“I’m well aware of the SRRTs and your mission parameters, more so than you until the rest of your team arrives to begin your training.”

Ben scowled at his father before slamming the door closed. “That’s not something we should be talking about here.”

“Why not?” Thomas waved a hand and the server that was supposed to be serving Ben and Jacobi sprang into action to set another place at the table. “Every counterintelligence gadget imaginable is installed in this penthouse, and I was one of the people who helped pitch the idea for the SRRTs.”

Ben knew his father had reach and influence with the people that ran the Fleet, but he didn’t know that extended to strategic decision making.

“It’s logical.” Thomas sat down in one of the chairs and accepted a glass of wine. “We can’t afford the big toys until we are able to establish meaningful trade with the Hegemony, and Windsor is making that impossible with their targeted raids and harassment. If the Star Kingdom keeps this up it could be years before Hegemony markets open up to the Commonwealth.”

“Death by a thousand cuts,” Ben acknowledged as he took the seat across from Thomas, and Jacobi settled in between them as a buffer.

“Exactly.” Thomas nodded in appreciation of the wine. “But like all good businessmen, I found a loophole.” The salads arrived, and Thomas poured a healthy amount of dressing onto the greens. “The audit for the Commonwealth might never be completed, but the individual audits for corporations within the Commonwealth are coming along nicely. Mackintosh Shipping was the first to complete their part. Ezekiel is playing the brave trailblazer for his fans, but Gold was number two. As such, our standing and worth in the Hegemony has been assessed, and Bob has deemed corporations as worthy interim trading partners.

“That’s genius,” Jacobi stared transfixed at Thomas.

“Humans have been getting creative with their accounting since the practice was invented. We’re just bringing that to a bigger stage,” Thomas shrugged. “Compared to the Commonwealth as a whole, corporations have much smaller potential in the eyes of the Hegemony, but through us, the Commonwealth can start to act. Defense contracts are being awarded and deals struck so that the corporations have the funds to start rolling out these new products.”

“But there are laws regarding Commonwealth-level contracts, their amounts, and their uses,” Ben played devil’s advocate. Mostly, because he wanted to find a flaw in his father’s plan, and he knew weapons contracts could be pretty stingy, especially with uncertified tech.

“True,” Thomas finished his salad and waved for the main course to come out even though Ben and Jacobi were still working on theirs. “The Representatives are working on making adjustments, but the Progressives are pushing back because of their beliefs on corporate interference, so I doubt we’ll see that until the situation gets really dire. What we have been able to do is get the legal amount of funding and start moving forward.” Thomas cut into a perfectly cooked portion of New Savannah steak and sighed. “With the funding we did get we had a choice to make. We could either get one of those monster gluon generators for a battleship-sized vessel, or a number of smaller ones. We chose to go with quantity because you can’t mount a successful offense or defense from a single platform.”

“So you’re arming a bunch of gunboats to do exactly what the Windsors are doing to us.” Ben pieced it all together.

“Right again,” Thomas made sure to slather his steak in a local sauce before taking another bite. “We’ll have twenty gunboats, with twenty SRRT teams, using next-gen tech while cruising around behind enemy lines, disrupting commerce, raiding lightly-defended infrastructure, and causing general mayhem. Hopefully, that’s enough to get the Kingdom to pull back some of their forward deployed firepower to focus on defending what they’ve already stolen. If you guys can buy some time, then the bean counters might actually be able to finish this audit and open meaningful trade.”

“It might work,” Ben conceded, but he knew only time would tell. The Star Kingdom didn’t operate the same way as the Commonwealth, so who knew if this would really divert their attention like Thomas was hoping.

“Which brings us back to you,” Thomas turned his attention fully to Jacobi and smiled. Ben didn’t like the way she smiled back. “Now that we’re open to some of the military and commercial products, we’re going to start to develop our own brands. Hegemony patents are owned on things like the BioSeed, but if we tweak it enough we’ll fall outside those patents, and the products themselves might be more readily usable by humans. After all, who is going to make a better product; humans or aliens?”

“That could be your slogan.” Ben knew he sounded pouty, and tried to hide it with a sip of wine.

“Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll run it by legal and PR,” Thomas turned it around, which only pissed Ben off more. “We’ll be looking at your neural nanotech suggestions in trying to create our own bio-interface. We’ve been toying with the idea for a while, but it wasn’t cost effective. Now that we know there are numerous of secondary revenue streams to go with it, we’re exploring it more vigorously.” Thomas’ attention was back on Jacobi.

“It’s a workable premise, but I’ll have to see the data to know where we’re starting from.” Jacobi was practically salivating.

“I’ll make sure you have clearance to the labs right away,” Thomas replied, brought up a holo, tapped the air a few times, and it was done.

Ben’s smile was strained when Jacobi’s beaming face turned to him. He’d made her life’s dream come true, so why did he feel like his dad was stealing all of his thunder. In the romantic date Ben had meticulously planned, he was now feeling like the third wheel.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 50

Daisy wobbled as she suddenly appeared in the middle of a parking lot. What was usually sparsely populated was now bursting with activity. There were enough patrol cars, with blue lights flashing, to patrol a small city. A few ambulances sat idle not far from the entrance, but unlike the majority of the police officers, the paramedics were hard at work on two individuals. Daisy ignored them for the moment. The first thing she needed to do in a clusterfuck like this was find the person in charge.

“Thanks for the lift.” She told the black-suited DVA teleporter, who nodded and vanished with a subtle pop.

She stood where she was for another minute until the vertigo subsided, and then headed toward the most likely source of authority. In a sea of law enforcement, it was a tried and true practice to find the group with the biggest vehicle, the biggest gun, or the most Heroes huddled around it. In this instance, that meant a converted mobile home with DHA painted in big letters on the side, and a few familiar faces idling around the front door.

“Seraphim.” Daisy nodded to the shifter as she approached.

“Reaper.” The other Hero replied stiffly. “Why are you here?”

“The same as you,” Daisy replied. The conversation ended there because another familiar face descended from the mobile command center.

“Everyone listen up and gather around!” Agent Phillips called out over a loud speaker to get everyone’s attention. Her words caused a mass shift as dozens of bodies began to push toward the large vehicle.

Daisy made sure to shoot a glare over her shoulder so no one crowded her. It also gave the local and state PDs the correct impression that she wasn’t the smiling, chipper, morning show visiting Hero. She was here to get shit done.

“Earlier today, at approximately six pm, Sheriff Douglas pulled up on a seemingly abandoned vehicle that turned out to have a single occupant. The sheriff quickly determined that the individual was lying and detained them for failure to identify. The subject made a stink about it, but came back to the station willingly. Attempts to ascertain the identity of the subject were unsuccessful due to equipment failure, and they were placed in lock up until such time as more resources became available. This was the subject.”

A screen unfurled down the side of the command center, and an unseen projector hummed to life to show a picture of the subject.

<Shit.> Daisy recognized the face of Seth Abney immediately. <What the hell are you doing Seth?>

Debora let the assembled lawmen and women take a good look at the picture before continuing. “The subject is Seth Abney, a HCP-trained broad spectrum elemental manipulator. If you locate Mr. Abney, do not approach. Call for backup and let the Heroes handle it. His intentions are unknown, but he recently escaped from a joint DHA police department detention center in Florida.”

Daisy had a hard time believing that Seth would really hurt any cops that found him, but he’d probably rough them up a bit so he could escape.

“At approximately 6:45pm a call came into the local dispatch.” Debora played the recording. The stupidity of it got a couple of cops to laugh, but Daisy knew better. She was ninety-nine percent sure who was on the other end of that line with the sheriff’s deputy. Debora seemed to be thinking the same thing, because next up was video footage from the police station standing on the other side of the parking lot. “At roughly seven, the individual from the call showed up here.” She played the footage and the laughter faded into silence as the car pulled in, a woman got out, hid her face from the camera, talked with the deputy, and teleported.

“Son of a…” Daisy heard a few of the cops inhale as the deputy went down and the chase between the second subject and the sheriff ensued.

It all ended with a spectacular explosion, and the destruction of two police cars. The cameras went out as shrapnel smashed into them. The sheriff survived, but he was definitely one of the two people getting treated by the paramedics right now.

“The woman who entered the station, disabled the deputy, teleported around the place, and released Mr. Abney before destroying public property with military-grade ordinance is this woman.” A mug shot of Wraith appeared on the screen. “The supervillain Wraith, aka Liz Aretino, and from recent intelligence we also believes goes by Lilly, is armed and extremely dangerous. She is a wanted terrorist implicated in the Orlando bombings earlier this year. She was tried and sentenced to life for multiple murders, and attempted murder on law enforcement officials. If you see her, do not approach, and radio in the Heroes.” Debora nodded at Seraphim and Daisy, but Daisy felt she really meant her.

“Lastly, we believe the third individual, the one that remained in the vehicle during the entire exchange, to be this woman.” A third person appeared on the projector. She looked like a half-starved junkie with crazy eyes, disheveled hair, and an unhealthy pallor to her skin. “This is Morina, no last name known, code name Blood Hound. She is a blood manipulator and convicted serial killer. She has a psychological compulsion, believed to be from a combination of her powers and traumatic experiences, to drain victims of their blood and bathe in it. Due to her abilities, this process seems to provide her with either some form of nourishment or refreshment. Make no mistake, despite how fucked up she is, she is an addict, and addicts make mistakes when they start jonesing for their drug of choice. Blood Hound was arrested after the ritual murder of more than two dozen people, sentenced, and locked up in Supermax until the recent breakout. It is believed that she met Wraith while in prison, and they befriended each other as much as there can be friendship between people like this.”

Daisy did a quick scan and saw a lot of disturbed looks on people’s faces. These were rural cops who’d never seen anything like this, and probably never would again. They’d be telling stories of ‘when the supervillain murderers came through town’ at the bar in thirty years, if they weren’t stupid and got themselves killed. Daisy refocused on Debora and saw someone was whispering in her ear. The look on the DHA agents face said it wasn’t good.

“Ok, we’ve got bodies people.” The statement sent a shock through the group. “A family of five was just found exsanguinated in a town not far from here. “Seraphim, I want you to lead a response team and secure the scene. You’re a fast mover and can get places quicker than we can in our vehicles.”

“On it.” Seraphim didn’t argue, which took Daisy by surprise. The Hero just jumped into the air and disappeared off in the direction Dispatch was directing her.

“Captain,” she turned to an older cop with an impressive mustache. You need to make sure you’ve got good communications with the roadblocks you’ve set up. Hunter is going to act as the quick reaction force to get on scene fast if someone encounters the subjects. Reaper, you’ll go with Hunter.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Daisy and the cop answered at the same time. She nodded to Hunter who stood at the top of the stairs to the command center before walking away. While everyone else was planning the ‘what if’ scenarios, she wanted to grab some intel.

She walked across the parking lot to the only people who’d interacted with Wraith in the last few days. “Sheriff Douglas?” She poked her head in the back of an ambulance, where a rugged man in a tattered uniform sat.

“Yes,” he had an oxygen mask on and there was noticeable bruising on his skin.

“Reaper,” she expended her hand. The pressure he exerted in return showed he was a super. “You’re lucky, Sheriff.”

“I know that now,” the man replied humbly. “I just thought it was some stupid kid as first, until the cars blew up. Now that I know who she was, I feel like she was toying with me.”

“What can you tell me about what happened?” Daisy sat down on the bumper.

“Well…” Coughs suddenly wracked the man, and he took a couple of deep pulls from the oxygen tank before he could speak again. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I can walk away from getting shot and a small explosion, but get enough smoke in my lungs and I’m just like everyone else.” His grin was charming, and Daisy smiled back politely. “Well…I came out to check on Emily, my deputy, something seemed off, and I found her down in the office. Then Wraith shot me in the ass with some sort of fancy stun gun. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t go down. I’m not HCP trained or anything, but I had great teachers at the police academy, and I know who to use my strength. I pursued, but it was like trying to catch the wind. Every time I got close she’d tag me once or twice with a real gun, and then vanish. I think I did get her once, but it didn’t slow her down. Now looking back on it, she was looking for the guy I brought in earlier. She got him out and led me away. I followed the bigger threat, and that’s when the cars blew up.” The sheriff shrugged, but Daisy could tell he was still upset about everything.

“You did everything you could.” She did her best to comfort him, but that wasn’t really her strong suit. What was, was identifying that Wraith was going for non-killing blows at first and only escalating when she knew the guy could take it.

<Apparently, Seth might be a good influence after all.> That went both ways though. Wraith had dragged him out of a promising HCP career and into a life of crime, so it wasn’t worth the tradeoff.

Next, Daisy talked to Emily, the deputy. She didn’t have much to add other than a description that matched Wraith. Then, Daisy walked the station to get a feel for what happened. Forensics had already been through, but she saw the yellow placards set where they found evidence like blood and bullet casings. It did seem like the sheriff grazed her, which was closer than Daisy ever got.

<Hell of a way to spend Christmas.> Daisy walked around the outside of the building to the check the burnt husks of police cars before returning to the command vehicle.

The fact with these types of manhunts was that they involved a lot of sitting around and waiting. The DHA had a teleporter and team standing by for when contact was made, but until then, a lot of the leg work needed to be done by local and state law enforcement. They knew what they were looking for, and what direction the three suspects had been heading from the security footage, but in this part of the country there were a lot of backroads to get around things like roadblocks.

Daisy really wanted to help, but there wasn’t much she could do. The DHA might have other resources they could put into play, but Daisy wasn’t read in on those, or aware if they were already in action. All she knew what her job was to stay by Hunter and go when they got word.

That didn’t stop the waiting from sucking, especially since the call might never come. With the person they were chasing being Wraith, Daisy had to place the odds in the fugitive’s favor.

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PCS to Eden – Evasion

“Is this going to work?” Gerry might have a plethora of new knowledge at his fingertips, but what he was seeing in front of him left him with a big question mark.

“Of course it’s going to work.” Vicky smiled, brimming with confidence.

Gaius muttered something under his breath from where he was standing behind them while his guards, now Gerry’s men, pulled three hundred and sixty degree security. The ancient general was still pissed that Gerry had usurped his poistion in the blink of an eye.

<That’s what happens when they see my star rising and yours falling.> Gerry had to keep an eye on his old teacher regardless. He’d been around the former Roman Legionnaire long enough to know how he operated.

Gaius would wait patiently, be a good soldier, and then strike when he thought his enemy was weak. Gerry fingered the miniaturized throne in his pocket just to reassure himself it was still there. He felt a shock run through him when his fingers touched the warm metal. Power pulsed in his pocket.

Gerry didn’t know the importance of thrones until he sat on one. They weren’t there to look pretty and be a comfy surface for a being of power to plop their ass on. Thrones served an important purpose. There was so much æther in the universe that it was simply too much for a creature to hold. Even the all-powerful, seven, original Primordials couldn’t hold all the æther connecting all things, so they created the tools needed to do it. Those were the thrones.

Thrones were part ætherial battery part magnet. They drew in power and stored it until their owner needed it, then dispensed it. They were all repositories of information, and had formidable defense protocols built into them, which Gerry had experienced firsthand. There was a reason even regular humans always talked about God’s throne in heaven, or the devil sitting on Hell’s throne. It was why monarchs, believing they were rulers by divine right, created their own thrones to sit upon. For many it was just a chair, but some of those old kings and queens had been witches and sorcerers, and their thrones had been literal seats of power.

Thrones were needed to rule. Only they could give the power for a single person to hold together a kingdom: human, Infernal, or Divine.

Seere’s throne was the throne of a Throne, a distributor of Divine justice. It was a powerful tool that Seere had tampered with when exiled to Hell. Now, it could collect and draw more power than any Throne’s throne, but at a price. That power needed to go somewhere. Essentially, Seere had removed the governor on his power source, and it needed to be dispersed before reaching critical mass. That was never a problem in Hell. Actually, it was an advantage. Seere had to expend power, and the result was the Elysian Fields. Possibly the most peaceful place in Hell compared to what some of the other Infernal Lords put their subjects through.

Gerry missed that. The feel of the grain on his hands as he walked through the field of his latifundium that Seere bestowed on him when he became an Infernal Knight. Gerry had only spent a few days there, but he had loved the place. It was that grain that sustained Seere’s armies, made them strong when others were weak. It was all possible through the throne.

It might be a strength in Hell, but on Earth it was going to become a problem. Gaius had led a small invasion that brought the Divine down into the city. They’d undoubtedly found the Guardians Gerry obliterated and were on the hunt for him. A throne that was building ætherial power that would need to be used sooner or later was a liability in their current environment.

All that was going through Gerry’s head as Vicky used her elbow to smash in the driver-side window of a car. She reached in, ignoring the glass that scraped against her hardened, Soulless skin, and unlocked the door. She searched underneath the protective mat, in the center console, and finally under the rearview mirror. A pair of keys dropped down when she pulled on the mirror, and Vicky easily caught them. She stuck them in the ignition and turned the key.

The beat up, imported junker rumbled to life with an exaggerated cough from the exhaust. Vicky shut the door behind her and leaned casually on the car with a smile. “I told you it would work.”

“Good.” Gerry looked behind him at their small contingent. “Now find me four more.”

It wasn’t hard to find abandoned vehicles after what had happened in Charlotte. Finding them with keys and fuel was the tricky business. Vicky and the Infernal guards must have smashed twenty windows to find five cars that worked, and then came problem number two. No one here, except Vicky, was under two hundred years old. Gaius comprised his personal guard of season soldiers of Hell. The youngest one present was a former French knight who’d fallen during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. They knew how to ride horses and kill people, not drive a car.

Gerry searched for an answer, and found it in the likeliest of places. After all, thrones were as much a depository of information as a power source. “Watch my back.” He ordered Vicky quietly as he grasped the power in his pocket and sunk into it.

He felt the sensation of someone hooking him behind the navel with a harpoon used to kill whales before harvesting them for their blubber. The sensation was excruciatingly painful and made his eyes water, but that was the price for the information. <Pain, always pain.> Gerry would have to get used to that.

He descended down and down until he hit something hard. His knees buckled and he fell to his hands. The surface beneath them was clean and white, so white it hurt to look at. He looked up and saw more white and gold-trimmed shelves. On those shelves were leather-bound books encrusted with precious stones and metals.

<So this is what a depository of ætherial knowledge and power looks like?> Gerry looked around at a library that Liberachi would have designed.

From all around him a low grumbling answered his unasked question and the books began to shudder on their stacks. The throne’s library had heard him, and it didn’t like his tone.

“Sorry,” Gerry held up his hands defensively, and the rumbling stopped. “I need to find a spell.”

There was another painful yanking sensation and Gerry found himself standing in front of a cabinet made of exquisitely carved wood, and inlaid with ribbons of silver. DIRECTORY was written in cursive on a golden placard on top.

<I need to find what I’m looking for.> Gerry set himself to the task.

He was looking for what Prince Seere had done to him what felt like several lifetimes ago. After the Infernal Lord made Gerry a Dux, he gave him a mental upgrade. Gerry was an 18th century man about to enter the twenty-first. He wasn’t equipped to deal with the world-altering leaps forward in society and technology. He would have stood out like a sore thumb and blown his cover before he found his demesne. Through the power of the æther, and a spell Gerry knew was in this vault of knowledge, Seere had downloaded information into Gerry’s mind. It wasn’t perfect. It was like seeing something or reading about it in a textbook versus seeing it in real life, but at least with this upgrade, a person wouldn’t be floundering and dragged under by culture shock.

What Seere had done for Gerry, now Gerry needed to do for Gaius and the Infernal guards. If they were going to survive, they couldn’t be gawking at buildings higher than five stories every time they passed one, or trying to figure out how to work a vending machine. It could get them all killed.

Gerry knew what he needed to do, the problem was finding it. <Come on…come on…> He felt the minutes ticking by as he searched the flawlessly-white index cards that showed where everything was. He thought he had it twice, but was wrong. The problem was that there was so much information it was hard to find exactly what you were looking for.

<I wonder if I could install a computer in here?> Gerry daydreamed as he flipped through cards in a blur until finally finding what he was looking for.

The card was a mix of numbers and symbols. Only the numbers were human. The symbols were Enochian, and although Gerry had never read a word of the Divine language before today, he understood it perfectly. He spoke where he wanted to be, and another tug took him to his destination. He wiped the tears from his eyes as the pain faded and looked up. He was in front of a shelve that looked like all the others. He double checked the alpha-numeric on the card, traced his fingers along the spines in front of him until he found the one that matched. He yanked it from the shelf and opened it.

The gold and jewel-encrusted cover wasn’t a cover at all. It was a holder. Inside the holder was a single set of preserved paper. On the paper was the spell he’d been looking for. The only problem was it was a lot more difficult than Gerry ever imagined.

The problem wasn’t going to be supplying the power for the spell, it was getting the measurement’s right. Prince Seere had made it look so easy, but now Gerry knew he’d done prep work. There was a delicate weight-to-power ratio that needed to be maintained. Too little and information transfer wouldn’t occur, or only partially occur with no telling what actually made it through. Too much, and the recipients brain would turn to ash.

Doubt crept into Gerry’s mind before he could push it away. He studied the paper, memorized it, placed it back in the cover, back on the shelf, and then asked to return to reality. He assumed the whole thing, start to finish, took him twenty minutes.

“Hello?” Vicky stuck her finger in Gerry’s face and he reacted instinctually.

His hand shot forward, grab the offending digit, and twisted. A sharp snap echoed as Vicky went down hard. Her mouth opened to cry out, but Gerry’s other hand slammed over her mouth. They couldn’t draw any unnecessary attention, and a Soulless who looked like a high school cheer captain surrounded by a bunch of older men in armor was going to draw all the wrong attention.

“What the fuck was that?” Vicky hissed when Gerry let her go, and she popped her finger back into place.

“Don’t ever stick your finger in my face again,” he snapped back. “I was only gone for twenty minutes, get used to me zoning out as I gather power and resources for our war.”

She didn’t even pretend to know what he’s talking about. “You were only out for two boss, and message received. I’ll keep my distance.” Something like hurt flashed through her eyes, but it was gone just as quick as it arrived.

“Armor off,” Gerry commanded. This time soldiers obeyed without hesitation even though it was the most ridiculous order yet. Without their armor they were vulnerable. “Put it in the pickup truck.” Gerry pointed to the F-150 they found with a mercifully-full tank of gas.

The men and a few women stripped out of the heavy Infernal Iron armor and the truck groaned as it was piled it its bed. With the task done, Gerry looked out over his small Infernal force. The men and women looked tired. Their linen undergarments, worn to keep the armor from chaffing, were yellowed with sweat and stank like Beelzebub’s asshole. There was even fear in their eyes. <The last soldiers of Seere.> Gerry shook his head at how far they’d fallen.

“Step forward one at a time.” There was hesitation at his command this time. Not from a willingness to disobey, but from fear. They knew he’s about to do something to them, but they didn’t know what.

“Yes, Lord Fuller.” A broad-shouldered, pleasant-faced woman stepped forward. She looked confined to her fate.

Gerry gave her the once over, using a trickle of power to help his assessment. He estimated her weight and figured that into his calculations. He hoped he was right. Being wrong could turn the small force against him on the spot. If he was forces to kill them all, he’d have nothing left to command. Failure wasn’t an option.

He summoned the required power and said the chant out loud. The spell in the ætherial library said it should be spoken mentally by a master, but Gerry wasn’t a master. He’d never done anything like this before, only had it done to him. He finished the chant, felt the power build in his palm, and slammed it into the woman’s forehead.

Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, but she didn’t scream. Her body trembled, and she pitched backward like a felled tree. Gaius caught her and gently laid her on the ground, where she continued to shake.

Gerry saw the thoughts going through Gaius’ mind. He knew this was his chance to regain control. Gerry had just killed one of his own soldiers. Gaius would be able to rally the remaining men based on what they’d been through in Hell and getting here. He would use them to take down Gerry, steal the throne, and take his place as a new Infernal Lord.

He was opening his mouth to declare Gerry a murdering tyrant when the woman’s eyes snapped open, and she inhaled like a person who’d nearly drowned. “Fuck me!” Her whole body shuddered; she blinked like she was trying to clear something from her eyes, and kept shaking her head.

“It’ll pass.” Gerry gave her a smile for being the first volunteer, surviving, and inadvertently stopping a coup.

“Yeah,” the woman was helped to her feet by Gaius, who stepped forward as the next candidate.

<Smart.> Gerry stared at the man who repeatedly killed him in training back in Hell. <He knows the spell works, and if I kill him now it will sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the legionnaires.> Gerry could kill him, but that was thinking short term. Gaius could do some good in Gerry’s long term plan before he had to eliminate the old general.

Gerry repeated the process with Gaius and the remaining Infernal guards. One by one, they fell to the ground and rose as twenty-first century educated men and women. Gerry knew firsthand there was still a lot to learn, but they knew the basics.

“We need to move.” The whole deal only lasted fifteen minutes, but the sounds of intense battle were ebbing in the distance. Soon the victorious angels would come for their fallen, and Gerry didn’t want to be anywhere near them when it happened.

They loaded up their five-car caravan and started heading out of the city. Vicky drove the lead car with Gerry in the passenger seat. Gaius followed in the car behind, and the rest of the guards fit where they could. The few unlucky ones ended up in the back of the truck with the armor.

Gerry knew he should apologize to Vicky for breaking her finger, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. She couldn’t be acting like the lieutenant back before Charlotte became a warzone. There was no room for mistakes.

“How long until we arrive?” he asked instead.

“The refugee camp is north of the city, just outside Mooresville. We’ll be there in thirty unless the roads have been destroyed and I need to find a detour.” She kept her eyes on the road and Gerry simply nodded.

He took the time to figure out his next move. It didn’t take a strategic genius to understand he was up shit’s creek without a canoe. His force consisted of a dozen or so Soulless and just as many Infernals whose power was waning. He had the throne, and the library to rectify some of those issues, but he still needed manpower, supplies, and a goal.

Manpower was going to be tough. He needed to gather all the Infernally-aligned forces in the city under his banner. Only then would they stand a chance against the Divine. <I need to see who survived.> The most powerful Infernals left were his old lieutenants. He’d need to see what intel Vicky had on them.

Supplies were going to be tougher. He guessed he would be able to make Infernal Iron just like other Infernal Lord’s, with the help of the library, but he had no idea what that would cost him. The more pressing matters were food and shelter. The refugee camp was only going to work for so long. He needed a new base of operations, a new demesne to establish his seat of power and move forward with his ultimate goal.

<Study the past. Do not make the same mistakes that I did. See the truth. See what happens to those my Father called family. Search for a new solution to this eons-old problem, you will know it when you see it, and take your rightful place in the pantheon of power.> The words of Seere’s spectre resonated in Gerry’s mind. None of this ultimately mattered if there was no game plan to take on the big guy, and he’d need more firepower then a few Infernal lieutenants and a handful of Soulless.

He let his thoughts consume him as they pushed north on I-77. Traffic was thick with eighteen wheelers carrying supplies, military vehicles returning to the Forward Operating Base set up outside town, and scared civilians fleeing the latest battles.

Gerry and his small band of misfits blended right in.

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