A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 44

“That’ll be ten-eighteen.” The cashier drawled in a thick, backwoods, southern accent that made Lilly want to punch her in the twat.

Not all of that was the cashier’s fault. The supervillain known as Wraith, one of the most wanted people in the country, doesn’t like to sit still, and she’s been sitting with her thumb up her ass for over a week. If it wasn’t for the man she loved, she would have skipped town already, but because it was Seth Abney lying unconscious on the table she stayed put and waited.

“Wanna leave a tip?” The cashier took the ten and five Lilly handed her and waited for an answer before opening the cash register.

Lilly had been looking for a beauty store, but the town closest to the healer’s place didn’t have one. What it did have was a minimart attached to the local gas station that also included a Subway. The cashier worked the small sandwich shop along with operating the rest of the minimart. She was young, had probably just finished high school and wasn’t going to college. She was pretty, Lilly guessed cheerleader, but seemed dumb as rocks. Exhibit A was asking for a tip for just working the cash register. Maybe it would be more appropriate to do it if she made Lilly a sandwich, but even then, you didn’t tip at fast food places.

“No.” Lilly’s agitation leaked out in her answer.

“Fine. Whatever.” The girl rolled her eyes and went to get change.

Lilly bit the inside of her cheek enough that she tasted blood. She imagined herself reaching over the counter, grabbing the blonde-headed bimbo by the back of her stupid head, and repeatedly bashing it into the register. Over and over and over, until her pretty face was a pulped-up mess of skin, bone, and blood. That’s what she wanted to do, but she couldn’t. She was lying low, which was the reason she was at the “beauty store” in the first place.

It had been over a week, and Seth was still unconscious. The healer said that he’d fixed Seth up, but the energy expended staying alive had put Seth into a coma. The healer didn’t seem worried. He still worked on Seth a few times a day to fix up anything that was going wrong, but the man seemed confident Seth would wake up soon.

<He better, or I’ll put him down for good.> Lilly made the silent promise.

The prolonged coma left her with a problem. She and Morina took up a lot of space at the healer’s home, and it was clear he was unhappy with them being there. Lilly couldn’t give a flying fuck how the guy felt, but he was working on Seth, so she needed to stay in his good graces. To remedy the issue, she found a cheap-ass motel ten miles away, and had moved into the place with Morina.

The dude at the front desk was a creeper of the highest order. He asked if they wanted to rent the room by the hour, and even offered to advertise discretely for them. Lilly told him to fist himself, before plopping down two weeks of payment and walking off.

The guy ended up dying in a car accident two days later. The paper said he was drunk when he ran his shitty car into a telephone pole. The only other comment the paper made was the amount of blood. Apparently, the impact had burst the man open and spilled his essence all over the place. The cops at the scene didn’t qualify it as out of the ordinary, but it was a gruesome sight. Lilly asked Morina about it when the girl looked particularly satisfied, and the other woman just shrugged. Lilly left it at that.

Lilly left the minimart with the cashier still breathing and hopped in her car. She’d bought the rusted, beat up piece of crap out of some guy’s backyard off Craigslist. It was in good enough shape to make the trips back and forth to the healers. Aside from that, she didn’t care how it ran, and it blended in.

She drove back to the motel. The new front desk attendant was a lady, who didn’t even look up from the paperback she was reading when Lilly walked past her. Lilly opened the door to the smell of pizza and Morina watching something on the Discovery Chanel. Some guy was showing how to chop up a fish in the wild, and she was glued to it.

“I’ll be in the bathroom.” Lilly didn’t wait for a response. She walked into the room, locked the door, and dumped her supplies in the tub. Hair dye dropped into the onto the stained-white anti-slip pad with a dull thud.

Lilly sat on the edge and took a few deep breaths. Her hands were shaking from the sheer frustration. She knew she couldn’t do anything to speed the process along. She couldn’t do anything to help, and it was driving her crazy. All that she could think to do was fall back on her training.

No one had come through the rift she left in space when teleporting to Alabama, but she wasn’t going to get complacent. Just because there wasn’t any news of anyone coming through and looking around didn’t mean someone didn’t pop over get a location, and planned to come back later. She found it was always better to be hyper vigilant when dealing with Heroes like Hunter. That’s why she had the hair dye.

She read the instructions to make sure this brand wasn’t too different than others. You could never be too careful when the store you bought it from doubled as the town’s fine dining establishment. She mixed the solution into her natural brown hair and mumbled a slew or curses as it stung like a bitch. Her scalp was probably dry and that was turning this into hell, but she was no stranger to pain. She sucked it up, waited the allotted time, and the continued. Putting the actual dye in went better.

“Hey…whoa…” Morina poked her head in.

Lilly had her head under the tub’s facet and was rinsing. Streams of black flowed from her head and down the drain. “What?” she asked.

“Uh…healer man called. He’s seeing some activity.” Morina relayed the message as Lilly started to towel off.

Her relationship with Seth had started as blonde, he’d seen her natural brown hair, and now he was going to wake up to a dark-haired beauty.

“What the hell are we waiting for?” Lilly quickly grabbed the blow dryer, ducked her head, threw her hair up and over, and ran the blast of warm air through it.

“Waiting for you to finished blow drying your hair.” Morina answered the rhetorical question, but Lilly was too busy trying to get ready that she didn’t care.

With her small amount of tradecraft completed she hoped no one would recognize her if they did show up looking for newcomers to the town, and even if they did track her down, she hoped they hesitated for one crucial moment so she could escape. Fifteen minutes of protesting scalp was worth getting out of Alabama alive with a healthy Seth.

 

***

 

A warm tropical breeze blew through the cabana and brought the salty smell of the sea with it. The sun was shining perfectly above them, but they had the top covered to avoid getting burned.

Seth sat looking out at the beautiful, blue ocean and sighed contently. “This is a dream.” He knew the truth, but it didn’t make him sad.

He remembered he’d been shot. Some crazy bitch who used people’s blood as a weapon had sprung him from the Protectorate HQ. The same psycho may or may not blackmail him with the deal he may or may not have cut with the ADA for Lilly’s capture. All of those were distant hypotheticals in this paradise, and the paradise was made perfect by the fine, tan ass he had a great view of when he turned his head.

“Eyes up here, big boy.” Liz laughed.

She was still Liz in this place, not Lilly, or Wraith. Her hair was still golden and her eyes mischievous with whatever she had planned for tonight. This dream was drawing from their previous winter break to the Caribbean. It had been absolute heaven: sunny beaches, perfect weather, fine dining, even better sex, and a careless abandon where they could put all their worries behind them. He wished it could last forever.

“I’m going to wake up soon, aren’t I?” Seth knew enough about dreams that you only tended to remember the ends of them.

“Probably.” Liz rolled over and traded a view of her great ass for a bikini that barely contained her. She smiled when she saw him looking, but didn’t call him on it like last time. She was wearing fashionable aviators that she tilted up on the top of her head. “Got anything to say before you rejoin the land of the living?” Her lips quirked in the adorable smile he loved.

“Does it matter even if I do? You aren’t real.” Seth sighed and laid back down to look up at the sun. The canopy had mysteriously folded back and bathed them in war rays.

“Sure. I’m a figment of your subconscious. Sometimes admitting something to yourself is the first step to something bigger.” She shrugged in that way that meant she didn’t give a shit, but she usually did.

“I love you.” Seth admitted. “I tried not to. I tried to compartmentalizing all of this,” he waved a paradise, “and put it in the back of my mind to forget about it.” He sighed heavily and the sun vanished behind some clouds. “I know I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t be attracted to a murderer, terrorist, and general law breaker, but I can’t stop myself, and I don’t think you can either.”

He looked back over to her and she was smiling. She pulled the aviators back down over her eyes. “So, what are you going to do about it? You going to fight for her, fight her, or fight for something better?”

“Those are three very broad paths.” He shot back.

“Sure they are. You haven’t figured out your plan yet, so everything is broad, but the possibilities are also endless.” Her smile didn’t falter. “You’re a great man, Seth, and I know that sounds egotistical as fuck coming from yourself, but you are great. You’ve got power, wealth, rugged good looks, and a woman, who despite what she is, what you are, and both your circumstances, is still fighting for you. Do you think it would have been easier to just use you like a sex toy and dump your ass after she got the info she needed? It sure as hell would have.” She nodded her head aggressively. “But in the end she came for you, or sent someone in her place to come for you. She’s going to be there when you wake up, and we’re going to have to figure some shit out.”

“Any advice?” Seth rolled over and draped his arm over her body. It felt so right.

“Nothing that you haven’t already thought of,” she chuckled.

It was getting darker and darker all around them. The sun was gone, the sound of the sea had vanished, and all that was left was them in the cabana. Voices were starting to drift around him in the dark. Familiar and unfamiliar voices.

“Well it’s been fun talking with you…or me…whatever this is.” Seth ran his hand over her hip one last time.

“We can do some hand stuff before you wake up if you want?” Her eyes twinkled mischievously.

“What the hell, why not.”

He’d only worked his shorts down to his knees before something yanked him upward. It wasn’t the good type of yanking. The pleasantness of the sun’s warmth was gone from his body. Now, everything ached a little. When he cracked open his eyes, something violently assaulted his vision, and he had to snap them back closed with a moan.

“Seth,” a voice called softly. “Can you hear me?”

Seth would know that voice anywhere. It had just asked if he wanted a handy.

“Lilly?” He used her real name, because despite how pleasant the dream was, this was reality. The dull ache throughout his body proved that, and Lilly was her real name, and he needed to separate the two.

“I’m here, babe. I’m right here.” Something gripped his right hand and shocked him. He knew better than to think the shock meant something more than a simple buildup of static electricity, but damn if it didn’t hit him at his core.

“Turn the lights down.” She commanded, and he felt the violent assault of his eyelids lessen.

With the pressure gone, he was able to open them partially. He stared up at a familiar face, but one that had changed recently. It wasn’t filled with boundless confidence. It showed worry, mixed with a speck of agitation, and despite their fucked-up circumstances, a whole lot of love.

“Hey you.” Seth’s free hand went to cup the side of her face.

She was smiling so hard there were tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. “You scared the shit out of me.” She laughed and wiped one of her eyes before grapping his other hand too. “If you’d died, I’d have to bring you back the life so I could kill you myself.”

It was a joke, but the mention of killing made Seth frown.

“I’m sorry,” she saw the change in emotions. “Just rest. In a couple of days we’ll get out of here.”

“Where are we going, what are we going to do?” Seth voiced the questions and they sounded a lot like what dream Liz had been asking him.

“I don’t know, but we’re in it together.” Her grip tightened on his and made him feel safe.

“We need rules,” he felt like he ruined the moment, but it needed to be said.

The corner of Lilly’s mouth dropped into a frown, but she quickly shook it away. “Yes, we do. We need to figure all this shit out.”

“One thing I don’t need to figure out.” Seth pulled her close and tenderly kissed her lips.

“Yeah,” she breathed out and rested her forehead against his. “We’re on the same page there.”

“Ugh…you’re going to make me sick. Get a room you two.” Morina stood at the door with her arms crossed.

“We’re going to need another room at the motel.” Lilly nodded, ignoring the rest of Morina’s statement.

Seth had an idea what she had in mind, and was willing to take the pain. They had a lot of talking and making up to do.

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PCS to Eden – Calm Before the Storm

“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah…hallelujah…ha-lle-lu-jah!” A choir of mortal souls sang their praises at the entrance to the Hall on Most High.

Their words were filled with joy, wonder, and awe. Handel, the composer of this particular hymn, stood among the choir shouting his love of God. Michael couldn’t help but smile as he walked past the small gathering. The humans righteous enough to gain entrance through the Pearly Gates often clung to their old ways, and the atmosphere of Heaven encouraged those souls to do what they wished.

The manipulation of æther in Heaven was not the same as in Eden or Hell. The Archangel didn’t know how the building blocks of the universe were twisted in Hell, but they were collected in Eden. They were collected in the souls of man and the bosom of nature. His Father had done a truly magnificent thing on Earth.

In Heaven, æther wasn’t collected. It was expressed by God himself. Aether permeated everything with a sense of calm and content. Many of the souls granted entry had lived hard lives serving others and following the commandments of God. Constant peace was their reward.

<If only.> Michael mused as he tried to avoid stepping on any of the humans.

He was in his true form in Heaven – three hundred feet tall – but without his armor. Armor was for the battlefield, so he wore a plain white tunic that allowed his wings to spread freely behind him.

Stepping on the humans wouldn’t do anything. They would poof like a cloud and quickly reform, but it was considered rude and bad manners. These souls deserved respect.

“All hail the Sword of God!” The choir ceased their praise and waved as Michael passed.

He waved back, but didn’t stop. He’d learned long ago that stopping would lead to hours of discussion. It was usually riveting discussion, but time was of the essence. He made one long stride and he was passed them and into the Hall on Most High.

To his left and right were statues, icons, and trophies of his Father. Only when you passed them did you see hidden nooks where members of the Cherubim Guard stood on watch. There would have been a time when those hiding places were empty, but they’d been manned, to some degree, since the War of Rebellion. Today, every spot was filled, and roving patrols walked the hall. The items of celestial power in this hall couldn’t fall into enemy hands.

The Hall itself swirled with his Father’s æther. If God deemed it necessary, he could make the hall loop around so invaders or thieves would run in an endless circle until caught. It was the first of many countermeasures to keep these items out of enemy hands.

Michael didn’t have to walk before another angel joined him. “Castor.” Michael nodded to the Captain of the Cherubim Guard.

Most humans didn’t know the true nature of cherubim. Popular culture showed them as fat, baby-like creatures with bows that dispensed love to humans in need. The only thing remotely true in that description was the bow. The armored angels of the cherubim were masters of the bow, spear, sword, shield and wore all of them into battle. In reality, the cherubim were some of Heaven’s fiercest warriors. Their most recent deployment was driving the Infernals from Eden into Hell under the command of Michael and other archangels millennia ago. Castor had been there.

“Michael, you look better.” Castor gave the heavenly general a quick once over.

Michael’s recent battle with Satan had left him with several new scars and a deep amount of guilt. The Powers were monitoring the situation in Charlotte, but the casualty numbers were rising, and it was all his fault.

<I couldn’t defeat him.> It had been a draw, but in the tie Satan had still accomplished his mission.

The Veil his Father had erected between the realms was crumbling. Infernals would start making forays into Eden when the realized the weakness, and humanity would suffer their wrath. All that stood between them and destruction was the Divine Host.

“Chin up, Brother.” Castor noticed the pain on his older brother’s face. “We will finally defeat them once and for all.”

Castor was a slightly smaller version of Michael. He was just a hair under three hundred feet tall with shoulder length black hair bound together by a strip of leather. His steel gray eyes weren’t cruel, but they were intense to the point of indifference. Like Michael, he had seen the worst this universe had to offer while defending Heaven and Eden from a multitude of threats. Michael wouldn’t say his younger brother was eager for war, but he was eager to end the fighting. Although, Michael knew Castor would have no idea what to do with himself if they actually succeeded.

Michael didn’t reply as they reached the end of the hall. Two squads of Cherubim stood to either side of the entrance to God’s throne room, while a single angel stood blocking anyone’s path who wished to enter.

The angel was as large as Michael, with four metallic-gray wings fully extended to cover the entrance. He held his sword pommel up with the blade tip resting easily on the floor. It was an imposing stance by an imposing figure.

“Metatron.” Michael gave the Seraph a bow. “Father called for us.”

Metatron didn’t speak. He simply nodded. The Seraph’s voice was just as dangerous as his sword. He’d given up his ability to converse with his brothers and sisters to better protect their Father. God had bestowed the new gift upon him after half his guards were cast into Hell for rebelling against him.

Metatron furled his wings and stepped to the side. The massive doors to the throne room swirled in front of them. They were another line of defense against attack. Right now they weren’t anything more than swirling æther. There was no knob to turn, and if someone tried to rush through they would find themselves back at the main entrance to the Hall on Most High. It was an elegant trick, and it ensured God only saw the people he wanted.

Once Metatron stepped aside the door solidified into an ornately carved piece of white marble. In the center was a starburst that represented the birth of the universe. From that starburst, figures spring forth, but only one was truly defined: their Father.

The door’s seam split right down the center of the starburst and opened to admit Michael and Castor. A second angel, this one larger than Michael or Castor, stood before them.

“Brothers.” Amenadiel gave them a warm smile.

Most considered Michael to be God’s champion and the strongest of the Divine Host. They’d be wrong. The most powerful angel, in terms of sheer strength, was Amenadiel, but strength didn’t make a commander. The second of four Seraphim lacked flexibility. He didn’t have the tactical mindset to adapt and overcome to a constantly changing battlefield. That was why he was their Father’s closest guard and confidant.

Michael suspected that Satan had been jealous of their Father’s relationship with Amenadiel, even though the Prince of Darkness had been Captain of the Seraphim Guard.

“Please follow me.” Amenadiel led the way.

He was in his full regalia of Divine Steel armor and weaponry. All of the Seraphim were ready for battle at all time. Castor was also armed, but Michael had forsaken everything to focus on his healing.

There was no suspicion or paranoia that his brothers were going to turn on him and kill him as they approached his Father’s throne. That only happened in a realm ruled by Satan, and that mentality had already claimed a victim.

Michael had heard of Seere’s death. Despite the former Throne’s exile and theft of Divine property, Michael still mourned his death. He had been a good angel before Lucifer and Satan sunk their teeth into him.

God’s throne rose up before them as they approached. It went up and up without end. The throne connected to all parts of Heaven. It emitted the heavenly peace that the human souls’ cherished, and it gathered æther from Eden as mortals beseeched him for guidance. Despite the immensity of the object it was made of plain wood, bore nothing ornate like other thrones throughout creation, and even looked uncomfortable to sit on. Sitting on it was an ordinary-looking, middle-aged man.

God had normal brown hair cut in a modest style. He had a neatly combed brown beard that took up the majority of his face. Kind blue eyes tinged with sadness were staring intently down at a chess board. A bit of a pot-belly extended from his plain beige tunic. A frayed sandal adorned a calloused foot resting on his knee as he sat cross-legged and watching his opponent closely. If Michael hadn’t been created by this man he wouldn’t have noticed him walking down the street.

God’s chess opponent was the third Seraph, Zebadiah. Zebadiah had been elevated to his position after the War of Rebellion. He took Lucifer’s spot. He was cunning, not as cunning as the Morningstar, but their Father engaged him often in topics of debate. Zebadiah had a firm grasp on modern man and their proclivities.

“Michael, Castor,” God held up a finger for them to wait. He tugged at his beard before moving his queen. “Checkmate in three.”

Zebadiah took a few seconds before admitting defeat and tipping over his king.

The fourth and final Seraph, Castiel, stepped forward. He watched Michael like a hawk. All of God’s children loved him and wanted to protect him, but Castiel was the most zealous. He’d taken Satan’s place as Captain of the Seraphim Guard, and seemed determined to right the wrongs of his predecessor. He was strong, smart, determined, and ruthless. Everything that Satan was with the addition of absolute loyalty. Castiel would not fall like Satan had.

Michael could sense Castiel wanted to rebuke him for having the chance to kill Satan and failing, but he held his tongue. His fallen children were a tough subject for their Father.

“Thank you for coming.” With a wave of God’s hand the chess board vanished in a puff of white smoke. A snap of his fingers made the room shudder. From the floor a hundred foot globe slowly ascended until it was the dominant feature in the room aside from the throne.

For a moment the perfect sphere was blank, and then information began to flood into it. It molded into a perfect replica of the Earth, and around it a thin shimmering light sprang to light.

“The Veil is weakening,” Their Father wasted no time in confirming their worst fears. “I have spoken with Behemoth. He and his people will do their duty to stem the flow of the Infernals into Eden, but he cannot stop them all.

Michael had met Behemoth, one of the two giant beasts born during the War of Rebellion. He was a massive creature of brute strength and power equal to any archangel. He and his offspring were charged with patrolling the Veil. During peacetime, Michael actually found him to be very pleasant and fun to be around.

<Now because of Satan’s lust for power Behemoth’s entire family is being put in harm’s way.> The fact that it was the purpose of their creation didn’t matter. Michael didn’t want to see more innocents butchered for pointless reasons.

“My Little Ox may not be able to stop them all, but he will be able to tell us where they are headed. We will deploy our resources accordingly and defeat the Infernals.” It was a straightforward plan with anything but straightforward execution.

Tens of thousands, maybe even millions of Infernals were going to be popping up all over Eden. The Host would be spread thin, and there were only so many troops they could deploy to Eden without dangerously weakening Heaven.

“I have secured assurances with Fey.” God referred to the primordial Lord of the Fairy Realms. “He knows I would be displeased if he aides my wayward children, so he has pledged his neutrality and closed his borders.”

That was a breath of fresh air. Nothing had gone according to plan so far.

“Gabriel will reach out to the Elder Races.” God referred to the Remnants of Eden’s prior hierarchy. “They will need to decide what kind of world the wish to live in: a world of peace, or a world of pain.”

Michael hoped the Remnants made the right decision. He had no doubt Satan’s minions would be approaching them as well with promises to take back the realm their Father had taken from them.

<Gabriel has his work cut out for him.> Michael didn’t envy his brother.

“Castor, are your troops prepared.”

“Yes, Father.” Castor bowed. “We have several quick reaction forces ready to deploy once we hear from Behemoth. They will be able to plug the holes within minutes.”

“Good.” God nodded and gazed intently at the map. “Michael, you need to start marshalling the main body of the Host.” More sadness leaked into God’s eyes as he spoke those words. “The battlefield for the future of these realms will be Eden. I will not allow the bloodshed to spill into Heaven and affect the eternal peace these souls have earned.

“The humans…” Michael couldn’t stop the outburst.

“I know.” God waved his hand to silence his general. “We will bring them into the fold in time, but we do not want to spread fear and panic. It will only fuel and embolden the Infernals.”

“Yes.” Michael knew his Father was right. “May I suggest alerting key leaders: the Pope, presidents, and prime ministers of the world’s primary powers? This will allow them to develop plans when Armageddon finally occurs.”

“Armageddon.” God’s face soured at the word. “I never liked the name, and I’m sorry I ever let those thoughts be heard.” He shook his head had rubbed his temple. “Permission granted. Begin alerting key leadership to the coming disasters.”

“Thank you.”

It would be a living hell for Michael to sit in Heaven administrating the preparations for the Divine Host while humans suffered and died by the droves. Now, he could at least give them a fighting chance.

“Father, I beseech you to…” Castiel began.

“NO!” Heaven and Earth rumbled at God’s outburst. “You are not going to lead an attack on Hell. You cannot comprehend the risks of such an operation.”

“But, Father, you cannot win a war playing defense. We must…”

“Enough!” God cut off Castiel again. “I will not hear any more of this. The answer is no.” With the issue closed he dismissed the small war council.

“Ensure you see your sister at the Healing Garden, Michael.” God left those parting words as he vanished into thin air along with Amenadiel and Zebadiah.

Castiel remained as he took up a sentinel position in front of the throne. His stone-cold stare dared Michael to do anything but leave.

“Brother,” he inclined his head to the vigilant Seraph and walked toward the exit.

Time in the Healing Gardens sounded good about now while they were empty. He doubted it would be like that for long.

 

***

 

God reappeared instantaneously in the same Healing Gardens he suggested Michael visit. The æther responded to his presence by rushing toward him. He ran his hand through the air to comfort it like a man would a faithful pet.  Knowing all was well with its Master, the æther dispersed back into the Gardens.

<Everything is not well.> God sighed and stopped himself from pinching his nose in frustration.

Instead, he smiled as the people seeking healing began to congregate. It wasn’t uncommon to see him walking these Garden’s. His æther reinforced them, sped the recovery of his injured children, and was a place for peace of mind in realms continually marked with chaos.

If he was being honest with himself, he was tired and needed these Gardens as much as the injured. He’d been doing this literally since the beginning of time. With each new creation, he hoped things would be better, but they never were. There was always war driven by any number of reasons. That was why he created Heaven in the first place. It was supposed to be a sanctuary of higher thinking, peace, and eternal prosperity. Then his favorite children had rebelled, he banished them from his creation, and ever since then the constant threat of their invasion had haunted him. No amount of power could put at ease a father’s mind when it came to the evil proclivities of his wayward children.

<Not here.> A true smile spread across his face as he found the person he was looking for.

She sat perfectly still on a plain wooden bench overlooking a glistening pool. Fish from the farthest reaches of the cosmos populated the pool and lived in harmony. He could see her eyes following one of the fish as it swam in a continuous circle. Another fish joined it, and they swam in tandem for a short time before breaking apart.

“Hello, Ava.” His words shocked her out of her trance.

“Father…” Adoration crossed her face.

God held out his arms and the young Dominion jumped into them and began to weep. “Shhh…shhhh….it’s ok.” He ran his finger comfortingly through her hair until she’d shed all of her tears. Then he took her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length. “You did so well, Ava, and I am so sorry.” The congratulations and condolence caused a fresh wave of tears that took time to overcome.

“May I…can I see her?”

Ava knew her daughter, Maria, had lived a good life. She’d fought on the side of the angels against the evil in the world. When she died, some part of her must have been drawn to Heaven. That was Ava’s hope. She also knew her daughter’s death had been used to power a trio of ætherial conduits that helped break a Seal and fray the Veil beyond repair.

“In time,” God replied, and Ava cried again.

She might not be able to see her daughter now, but her Father’s statement told her that some part of Maria had surveyed that brutal night.

“Let me see.” God extended his hand palm up.

Ava gingerly raised her partially reformed arm and handed it to her Father. She had lost a lot of ichor and æther in the battle outside Charlotte. Some had been siphoned away by an abomination, most had been expended, and some had just been expelled and absorbed into Eden’s æther. It was a terrible loss, but what really mattered was that she was safe.

“I’m sorry to ask this of you, but you must go back.” God felt her body tighten at the statement. “Bad things are coming, and I need someone who knows the area, and the people to be at the tip of my spear. We cannot let the Infernals take back what Maria fought valiantly to protect.”

“Of course,” she sniffed and wiped her eyes.

“But I will not let you go back empty handed.” He smiled and Ava giggled at the bad pun.

In the last day, God had collected æther from billions of human souls praying for his assistance. He took some of that power and channeled it into Ava. A warm glow gradually spread down her arm. The warmth built until it became painful, and quickly that pain became unbearable. It seared up her arm and into her brain. She screamed and thrashed, but her Father held her tight in his arms.

As quickly as the pain was there, it vanished. She choked out a few breaths and blinked the tears from her eyes. The Healing Gardens æther washed over her and put her at ease.

“I am sorry,” God smiled down at her, “but now you have the means to fight back.”

Ava followed his glance down to her hand. Instead of soft, snow-white skin, her new had glinted metallic gold.

“Oh my god.” She stared openmouthed at the miracle.

God just smiled down at her for a moment before getting up to leave. He had two realms to govern, and despite wanting to, couldn’t hang around in the Gardens all day. She registered him going, but was too engrossed with her new appendage. She knew what it was, she knew the legends surrounding it, but she’d never seen it before.

She was now the wielder of a Hand of God, a powerful Divine weapon bestowed upon champions of her Father in times of crisis. The last recorded one was during the Conquest of Eden, and was rumored to have assisted in slaying several of that realm’s champions.

<Wow.> She didn’t know what to say, or think, or feel; except this had to be some sort of promotion, and her life had just gotten that much harder.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 171

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 <Ugh…I hate Mondays.> Coop groaned as he rolled out of bed.

It was 0530, the normal wake-up time, and reveille was blaring on the speaker system just outside of his window. The problem was, Coop and his team didn’t need to be up at 0530 with the rest of the Company for PT. They were on detail for the next two weeks. It excused them from PT and morning formation at 0900. All they had to do was be at the spaceport by 0700, report to the MP liaison and civilian administrator, and do their assigned tasks.

It also didn’t help that Coop was nursing a none-too-minor hangover. “Shut the fuck up!” He yelled at the clear polyplast window, but the electronic equipment ignored him.

As the Company HI trooper, he got his own room, which was nice. Normally, soldiers shared what they called squad suites. It was made up of three rooms: two were five-person fire-team rooms where the soldiers slept, and the third was an open common area between the two rooms. The Company barracks that sat next to the Company HQ office had ten of these spread over three floors. LT Wentworth had her own room – although Coop was pretty sure she had an apartment off post that she stayed at most of the time –  the XO did live in their room, GYSGT Weitz spent about half of the nights in his, and then there was Coop. He was positive it was not a coincidence that the officers’ rooms were on the opposite side of the building from the speakers while Coop got a front a center seat to the high-pitched blaring horn every morning and evening.

He pressed his palms to either side of his head to drown out the noise until it ended. Then he slid down the side of his bed until his bare ass touched the cold, polished floor. He sat like that for a moment taking deep breaths to fight back the wave of nausea that had seized his gut. After a minute it passed, he shook his head, and stood up. Even if he was up, the beauty of being the only one currently on the floor meant he didn’t have to hustle to the latrine to take his morning shit. He walked out into the hallway in his birthday suit, cherishing the freedom, before going to bomb the porcelain sea.

From there it was straight to the showers where the warm water did a lot to alleviate his hangover symptoms. After that was a quick shave to be within regulations. With the three S’s done, he returned to his room, pulled on his CMU’s and headed out of the building. It was 0600 by the time he got to the Battalion DFAC. He scanned his GIC at the desk where a civilian didn’t even look up from their PAD as he passed. Being here right at the beginning of chow meant all the good shit was still on the racks. If given a choice, he’d still choose the extra sleep time, especially after his weekend.

It was a rare productive one, which translated to him not spending all his time at the Pit or one of the more reputable bars. He couldn’t always show up at the seedy freak show or the MPs would get suspicious and start sniffing around. He was so close to kicking off his latest scheme he couldn’t risk it, so he only spent Friday night ironing out all the details with cat stripper, aka Melissa, while the rest of his team got shit faced and whatever else his cash had bought them.

Saturday, instead of running around all over the place, he split the time between his room and the armory. For his plan with Melissa’s contacts to work, he needed to tweak a few things, and getting the software patch ready had taken him awhile. Altering something on his LACS and then rebooting it back to normal operating status without triggering any of the suits internal security protocols were a pain, and he was a bit out of practice. A V2 wasn’t anything like an air-car, but the same principals applied, so he was able to make it work.

He’d had a close call with the GYSGT, who just happened to show up while Coop was tinkering, but Coop was able to pass it off as dedication to maintaining his armor. The GYSGT bought it – at least that’s what Coop thought – but he’d have to keep an eye on the NCOIC for any sign that he’d caught on. After a long day working on the patch, Coop retired to Sandy’s place for the evening and hadn’t gotten much sleep. Sunday, to alieve any suspicions, he spent his day at the gym chatting up some females, caught a movie with one of those females, and then went to a local bar with the same female, which ended in a prolonged coupling in the restroom followed by stumbling back to his room and passing out.

Coop scanned the chow hall for anyone he knew to sit with, but just about everyone was at PT. None of his team was here, likely opting for more rack time, so Coop settled into a seat with a good view of the front door and ate his real eggs, bacon, pancakes, and breakfast danish. He washed it all down with a glass of OJ, which almost tasted real, before returning his tray to the automated dispenser. The civilian didn’t even lift her head when he left.

With his belly full, and his hangover symptoms cut in half, Coop headed back to the Company armory that sat in the basement of the HQ office.

“Hey, Sarge.” Coop greeted the old-timer NCO who sat in the duro-steel cage between the requesting soldier and a very intimidating-looking vault door. “I’m here for my gear.”

Coop liked the rolley-polley looking NCO. He minded his own business, ran his little twenty-by-twenty meter kingdom efficiently, but allowed some wiggle room – like Coop getting in on the weekend.

“Sign in.” The SGT pointed at the scanner and Coop did as he was told. “Your team ain’t here yet.” The SGT knew the assignments for the day, and Coop’s fire-team was supposed to be issued their gear between 0630-0640 before heading to the spaceport. It was currently 0633.

“Don’t worry, I’ll toss some beds and crack some skulls once I get suited up. They’ll be here.”

“Better be, or I’ll write them up for missing a time hack.” The SGT seemed grumpier than usual this morning.

“I got it, Sarge. Here,” Coop reached into his pocket and tossed a napkin-wrapped donut at the NCO, “I thought you might want this. It sucks getting forced in early.”

The NCO brightened immediately, and all thought of writing up Coop’s team vanished from his mind as he sunk his teeth into the jelly-filled deliciousness. Coop walked passed him and into the armory. All of the Company’s weapons, ammo, big guns, and HI armor were stored in here. He walked all the way to the back where his V2 LACS is sitting in a charging rack. With practiced precision he manually disconnected the power cords, opened the armor, and stepped inside.

The world is pitch black for a second before the system initializes and lines of code begin to stream down his HUD. It takes about two minutes to get everything up and running, and then another thirty seconds for him to toggle through multiple menus and get down into the weeds of the visual display, a cursory check of the coding shows his patch is up and running.

<Everything looks good.> It’s 0638 by the time he exits the vault, and his team is lined up with the SGT for weapons issue.

“Another beautiful day in the Infantry!” Coop announced with a grin behind his armored helmet.

Nickelbaucher nods, but the PFC looks tired. Goldsmith rolled his eyes mid yawn, while Stern was the only one to actually look enthusiastic about their upcoming assignment.

“They just need a light kit. We’re just going to be down the road.” Coop checked his own armor. He had no missiles and no artillery ordinance. His Buss was fully loaded and he had ten thousand rounds in his rail gun. For what they were about to do, he didn’t need anything other than that.

Getting this detail had taken some careful planning and fine manipulation of people. It wasn’t because it was desirable and everyone wanted it. It was the opposite. No one wanted it, so he had to get the job while looking like he didn’t want it. The mess from him killing that fucktard Bradford helped. A few bitch sessions to SSG Hightower about Stern’s incompetence, and pulling the LT’s attention casually to the available details had done the trick.

For the next two weeks, Coop and his fire-team would be doing customs checks at the spaceport. With a chunk of the fleet gone on some mission, they just weren’t able to inspect all inbound traffic as thoroughly as usual. So, the fix was to do cursory scans of inbound traffic as they settled into orbit, and then a hands-on inspection once the ship touched down to unload their cargo. The LT and SSG described it as a team-building opportunity to Coop while he looked appropriately pissed, but in fact, they’d just handed him the opportunity to make thousands.

“We’re set, Corporal.” Nickelbaucher had checked the troops over while Coop was daydreaming about swimming in a pool of money chips.

“Let’s get moving. No mags in the rifle. We’re walking down the street not some Blockie neighborhood.” The soldiers followed his orders and stowed the magazine in their Dragonscale armor’s pouches. Despite the assignment, they had a full combat load complete with grenades for their 40mm M3 attachments.

It was a short walk to the civilian spaceport which sat only a kilometer from the military base on the outskirts of Town Center. The local cops at the gate quickly scanned IDs before ushering them in without another word. They were happy to see the soldiers. It meant less tedious work for them.

The MP liaison was a bored-looking Corporal, while the civilian administrator was a guy in a suit who looked way too happy to be there.

“Welcome!” He beamed and reached out to shake Coop’s hands before realizing Coop could easily palm his whole head. “Thank you for coming.” He instead went for several thankful nods. “We’ve got a full schedule of incoming freighters today. I’ll upload the schedule to your neural networks and we’ll get started immediately.”

The MP brought out four sniffers and handed them to Coop and his men. “Have fun.” Just like that the MP was gone.

“You’ll be handling landing pads one through nine.” The administrator waved them toward the left side of the field.

It didn’t escape Coop’s attention that there were only twelve pads in the whole spaceport. <Fucking awesome.> He took a deep breath and imagined what he’d do with all the cash he’d make over the next two weeks.

They walked out onto the tarmac and stood next to a police crew of three armed with their own sniffers and sidearms. The blowing dust of New Lancashire’s still-being-terraformed atmosphere made seeing more than a hundred meters difficult, so positioning lights of the approaching craft seemed to appear out of nowhere when the first ships of the day fired their positioning thrusters to set down in the middle of the big white circles with their own positioning lights and electronic systems designed to help guide the pilots in through all the crap.

“Let’s get to it guys.” Coop let the way to landing pad one where a modular cargo hauler was setting down. As he approached he pulled out his PAD and typed a quick message.

 

I had fun last night. We should do it again soon. I’m free mostly from one to nine on the weekends, just make sure to message me to see what time works for you. Thanks!

 

He sent the coded message to Melissa’s inbox. For a five percent cut of the profits she was working as the middle woman for this job. Being free from one to nine told her what pads Coop was covering, and asking her to message indicated he wanted to know what pad their customers got assigned to so he could be the one to meet them.

 

Sure thing, Boo.

 

He got the reply less than five minutes later. She was probably just getting off her shift and heading home. He didn’t hear anything else from her for hours, and quickly learned why no one ever wanted this detail.

The spaceport wasn’t large, and it was only rated to handle ships with lightweight tonnage. That meant that all the cargo vessels – from twenty-five thousand tons all the way up to the multi-million ton behemoths – had to shuttle their goods down to the surface of the planet in small doses. It also meant pilots on roundabout flights all day long, and since this was the outer rim of Commonwealth controlled space, the pilots weren’t the cheeriest people in the galaxy. By flight number three they were getting a little testy.

“Are you fucking serious. It’s the same shit from the last two flights!” A bearded pilot steamed and threw his hands up in the air as Coop boarded the modular container and started waving the sniffer around.

The large container had a big GT on the side for Gold Technologies and the manifest stated that the ship was on a Commonwealth commission to provide consumables to the newish colony of New Lancashire from their farm world, Bounty. Since Bounty was at the edge of the Mid and Core Worlds, they’d had a bit of a hike out to York Sector with a few days of travel outside the Alcubierre Launcher network. That meant a big transport ship with over three hundred thousand tons of genetically-patented vegetables sitting in cargo holds. With food stuffs, time was money, and pilots were quickly getting sick of Coop and his team checking each of their holds every time.

“Sit down and shut up.” Coop snapped back. His interactions with this particular pilot were starting to grate his nerves.

The pilot replied in exclusively four-letter words, but Coop’s attention was on the vibrations and soft pinging coming from his armored hatch where he kept his PAD.

 

Eight works for me. I can’t wait to see you soon.

 

“You’re good.” Coop cut the pilot off mid curse and walked down the tail ramp where he waved the heavy equipment on that would unload ten thousand pounds of Bounty spinach in a few minutes. “Nickelbaucher!” Coop called over the team net to the soldier who was currently working pad eight. “Switch with me. If I have to deal with this guy one more time I’m going to rip his head off.”

The PFC had exclusively been dealing with some Mackintosh Shipping Conglomerate vessels delivering machinery, and if he was upset with the request to switch he didn’t say anything. “Roger, Corporal.”

Coop walked a couple hundred meters to pad eight and waited for the blinking lights of a new incoming vessel. Three minutes later, said vessel set down and opened its tail ramp.

The first red flag to a respectable customs agent would be that it was a private ship. Private ships had a much higher chance of being smugglers, pirates, or other nefarious spacers. Coop received their manifest from Air Traffic Control, and even the ATC desk jockeys had flagged the ship for a closer inspection.

Coop quickly toggled to his visual display, entered the command for his personal software update, and hit INITIATE just as a man’s boots appeared on the slip-resistant surface. Coop’s HUD gave a jerk that would look like a minor glitch to anyone watching before going back to normal, except now Coop had a small hidden box screen in the bottom right of his HUD. The two screens were nearly identical, but with one key difference. The faces of the man and his associates walking down the ramp were altered.

Coop’s V2 neural net was wired into ATC, which was wired into the local authority’s databases on wanted criminals throughout the sector and beyond. The facial recognition software automatically ran the faces Coop saw against those databases, and that was what his software patch was focused on. It wasn’t anything fancy, just enough to throw off the software. In the hidden box at the bottom of his head his armor analyzed the system and beeped a warning. A red silhouette encircled the man with the words DETAIN written over his head. As Coop scanned from left to right three other man had the same message stamped over them, but on his big HUD, with their altered faces, they all checked out.

“Good afternoon. Lovely day today.” Coop might have been able to manipulate the HUD’s input and output software, but audio was on a separate feed that he didn’t have the time to manipulate.

“You the guy?” The smuggler asked.

“I’m the customs agent, please follow me aboard.” Coop took a few steps toward the ship and the man’s face contorted in confusion. “Please, Sir,” Coop repeated. “This is just a routine check, I’m sure everything is just fine.” Coop made an OK symbol down low where his 360-degree visual wouldn’t see, and the smuggler finally caught on.

They both walked up the ramp and into the hold. Half a dozen grungy spacers were sitting around, but Coop worked around them. He made sure the sniffer was in stand-by mode and he never looked at the readout as he searched the ship. Since the civilian tech wasn’t linked to his armor it was easy to get around that safeguard.

“Looks like you’ve got about five thousand tons here.” Coop spoke to the smuggler hoping the guy was still picking up what he was putting down.

“More like thirty-five-hundred.” The smuggler grumbled back.

“I’m pretty sure it’s four thousand actually.” Coop’s tone held finality.

“Hmmm,” the smuggler pretended to check an old-fashioned paper manifest. “Yeah, it is four. My mistake.”

“No problem. We’re just about done here.” Coop turned to head back to the ramp. He had no idea what was in the crates all around him, and he didn’t care, what he knew was that he’d just made four grand for a mornings work.

As he walked, he held out his armored hand behind him expectantly. This was the part where trust was required between very untrustworthy people. Melissa had instructed them to pay in thousand-dollar chips. Coop wouldn’t be able to check until he was out of his armor, but he felt four chips being placed in his outstretched hand. The smuggler could stiff him and save a few bucks, but then his pipeline for getting goods into the colony would be cut. It was in his best interest to pay up, but if he was just making a single run then Coop might get shafted. There might only be four bucks on the chips for all he knew.

He had to take a leap of faith. Worst case scenario was that he got stiffed, and he hunted down the smuggler the next time he was on the planet. Making an example of how poor an idea it was to screw with Mark Cooper was always good for business.

Coop and his team worked until 1700 with a short break for lunch not long after he let the smuggler’s goods through. He got out of his LACS under the pretense of stretching and made sure none of the spaceports security cameras saw him checking the pouch where he’s stored the chips. When he looked inside four one-thousand-dollar chips gleamed back at him.

<This detail isn’t going to suck after all,> he thought.

He had this for two weeks, with at least one ship coming in a day. Payment was dependent on ship size, but if all of the ships were in this last one’s range, he was looking at another forty grand in his pocket.

That bought a lot of booze and lap dances. As far as he could see, life was pretty much perfect at the moment.

Previous

Two Worlds – Chapter 170

Eve Berg

Location: Yangon-2, Yangon System, Eastern Block

“Get in formation…ten meters spacing…cammo on…let’s move people,” SGM Queen set their movement conditions and the twenty SPECOPS soldiers hurried to execute.

They were on a time table, but they moved out at a cautious pace. They had to travel down a steep slope right off the bat, and the movement left them horribly exposed. Eve held her breath as the hustled down the incline. The rain was coming down in sheets now, which didn’t help their camouflage. The ability to blend into their surroundings was still going to fool sensors, but all an enemy soldier had to do was look at them with the good old mark-one eyeball and they’d be able to see where the rain was slamming into something solid.

<I’ve got a bad feeling…> Eve immediately throttled that negative thinking. She needed to get her head in the game or she’d end up a whole lot of dead.

So far, a positive was that she was moving near the rear of the formation and on the right side of a wedge spread over a hundred meters. If they made contact, the Force Recon marines up front were going to take the weight of enemy fire before she could get on line. She expected that to happen any second as they made it to the bottom of the hill and pressed into the bombed-out city.

“Keep your eyes peeled, Berg.” The SGM singled her out on a private channel like he knew her mind was wandering.

Their formation quickly disintegrated into a column as they picked their way through overturned air-cars, crumbled buildings, and fires that even this downpour couldn’t extinguish. They hugged the buildings to avoid getting pounded by the rain and giving away their position.

Now that they were in the city, the SGM pushed them with mild recklessness. Eve grimaced every time they came to an intersection and they didn’t post proper security. She was more than willing to run to the front and cover one direction, while another Ranger covered another, and the rest of the element moved through, but they didn’t have time for that.

STRATNET wasn’t a big help either. They had intimate detail of Fourth Brigade’s staging area, and the area surrounding that half of the PDC, but jackshit on this side. They were operating off the small, local networks in their suits, which only extended to line-of-sight. When Eve zoomed out on her HUD it was an ominously small circle inside a vast sea of unknown.

<Well, at least the spray is working.> The nanite spray she’d used on her helmet was working as advertised and no water was distractively dripping into her view.

Because of the recklessness of their advance they made good time. They’d crossed half the distance to the PDC in thirty minutes, but as they got closer they had to slow down. They still had no idea if the Blockie air defense had tracked their Spyder on the way in. Just because they didn’t get shot at didn’t mean the enemy wasn’t watching. A Commonwealth bird landing in their rear was bound to draw some attention, and it only made sense they’d come to investigate.

“Enemy sighted.” The announcement came over the team channel without any warning. “Three hundred meters, dead ahead, and heading straight towards us.”

Eve was in the middle of an intersection when she heard the announcement. She hustled to take cover behind a wrecked air-car in the mouth of an alley. It was a perfect position. The still intact wall of the two buildings covered her from the north and south and the car gave her complete cover and concealment from the east. Her only vulnerability was the road to the west, but two Rangers had hunkered down in it, and had that direction covered.

“I’m counting at least twenty, but they’re moving slowly.” The marine finished the report and STRATNET updated.

Eve watched as the number of red icons kept growing. <They sent a full platoon to look for us.> She grimaced. The good time they’d made didn’t mean shit now.

“Everyone hold for a second.” The SGM sounded calm and collected from where he’d taken cover under the awning of a roofless building’s front doorway. The red and white stripes seemed a lot cheerier than the situation called for.

Eve took the moment to think through the situation. It seemed like the Blockies had seen the inbound Spyder. Why they didn’t take a shot she’d never know, but they’d countered their movement effectively. Despite behind abandoned and partly destroyed, the avenue they were advancing down was the quickest avenue of approach to the large PDC. Eve was willing to bet her paycheck that other platoons were working their way down the less likely avenues. She tried to remember the grid-shaped map, and thought there were at least half a dozen roads leading into this side of the PDC. If her thinking was right, that meant the Blockies were willing to risk an entire company going outside the wire to look for them.

<Why…> realization hit her like a cargo hauler, <…because they can’t see us.>

The Blockies knew something was up.

Eve was about to radio the SGM but his voice cracked over her helmet speakers. “They know we’re here. We’re not going to be able to penetrate as a group.” Despite the bad news, he didn’t sound upset. “Team up with a battle buddy and give me a fire line with fifty meter spacing. Every man and woman for themselves. Get into that PDC and rendezvous here.” A blip appeared on STRATNET inside the PDC. “Get to it people.” The SGM cut the line and people stared moving.

“Let’s go, Berg.” SGT Sullivan rushed past her down the alley with his Buss raised. She immediately fell in beside him and covered the other half of the alley.

She watched on STRATNET as their bubble of awareness expanded as the buddy teams spread out. Since she’d been at the ass end of the formation, they had to hump it to the end of the firing line that now spread a good five hundred meters.

They reached their avenue of approach and immediately continued moving forward. Eve’s heart was pounding, but it had nothing to do with the short run. She’d expended more energy taking a shit than that leisurely jog. It was the fact that she was strung out on the edge of a formation with at least twenty times her number bearing down toward her. When the mission was a stealth incursion the one thing you wanted – no needed – was the element of surprise…and the enemy knew they were coming.

“I’ve got two…four…six…at a hundred meters.” The Ranger SGT stopped counting the enemy as the heads of the Blockie’s armored soldiers turned a corner and started to head toward them.

“Here.” Eve moved toward a relatively untouched building. She tried the door, but it was locked, so she put a little oomph into it. The polyplast snapped and bent in enough to create a small opening. Eve stuck her fingers in and manually yanked open the door.

She’d stopped a battleship’s armored door from slamming into emergency lock down, so this flimsy piece of plastic was nothing. The SGT rushed in and she yanked the door back into position. The rest of the city looked like shit, so she doubted the Blockies would think one wrecked door was suspicious.

The building was three stories, like all the other ones around them, and she and the SGT had no trouble rushing up to the roof. “We leap frog the rooftops until we’re passed the platoon, and then we push forward on foot.” Eve relayed her plan as they jimmied opened the door to the roof.

“Sounds like a…” the SGT looked like he was going to agree, but they stopped as they took a look to their north.

They sat only half a kilometer from the PDC now. Their HUDs showed the shield that arched up at least a kilometer to form a dome that terminated about fifty meters off the ground. That meant it was a strong shield, much stronger than the one Eve had gone through back on Rogue Island. She guessed a level four based on what it had to stand up to.

A twenty-meter duro-steel wall rose between the ground and the edge of the shield. The wall had built in pillboxes with powerful defensive weaponry. From their vantage point, Eve could see swatters spaced every ten to twenty meters on the edge of the wall, and soldiers patrolling alertly. It was a better situation than the side facing Fourth Brigade’s attack, but it still looked like a pain in the ass to get through.

A chorus of BOOMS tore through the air like thunderclaps, and Eve’s attention instinctually shifted. She magnified her HUD and saw vapor trails of orbital strikes cutting through the atmosphere…a lot of them.

The first stage of Fourth Brigade’s battle plan had kicked off. Warship’s in orbit were targeting the PDC with their railguns. The tough duro-steel rounds were punched down through the atmosphere to blanket the shield. It served the purpose of blinding and confusing the shit out of the enemy so the Brigade could move troops into position.

“We need to hurry.” SGT Sullivan tore his attention away as the rounds began to impact the shield in a shower of sparks. Within five seconds it looked like the old Fourth of July on steroids in the sky above the PDC.

“Stay low on your jump in the off chance they can pick us up,” were the SGT’s parting words before he jumped.

He went low, with almost no arch, and did a combat roll for a landing. Both froze for a second to see if the scouting platoon noticed anything. They didn’t. Between the roar of the rain and the railgun rounds striking the shield nobody heard the slight scrape of armor against polyplast, so Eve jumped.

The two Rangers jumped four buildings deep before crawling to the edge of the roof and peeking over. They were fifty meters past the platoon who continued to push outward at a faster pace.

<They want to finish their search and get the fuck out of here.> Eve didn’t blame them. Outside the shield was the worst possible place for them to be right now.

Eve and the SGT hurried down the stairs and emerged on the street parallel to the one the enemy was moving on. A block away the buildings ended and fifty meters of clearing separated them from the PDC’s walls.

“Fuck me.” The SGT mumbled as they reached the edge of that clearing and looked up.

They made sure to stay in the shadow of the buildings, but it didn’t make their task look any less impossible. Within spitting distance, Eve spotted a dozen soldiers manning the wall, two spotters, and a battery of hypervelocity missiles not that dissimilar from the one on her LACS’ shoulder.

“Team, listen up.” The SGM’s voice crackled over TACCOM. “Talked with Fleet upstairs and they’re going to end their bombardment with one final time-on-target bang. It might overload the shield enough in a few places to let some rounds slip through and cause a little chaos. That’s when we’re going to hit the wall. Hit it hard, fast, get the hell over it, and make it to the rendezvous point. Don’t get spotted, out.” He cut the link and left Eve’s eyes to scan the wall.

“I don’t know how…” a loud groan of metal on metal cut her off as a section of the wall slid open about twenty-five meters to their left.

“Well that looks like a perfect…” the SGT’s comment was cut off as a hovering block of armor and destruction poked its nose out of the opening.

A turret as big as a gaping maw swung back and forth, scanning it’s surroundings, before the tank pushed completely out of the opening.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” The SGT cursed while Eve’s mouth just hung open.

Tanks were largely a weapon of the past. With orbital warships, Spyders, and combat drones able to rain down fire support on anything, it didn’t make sense to put that much firepower into an easy target. It was much more economical to have HI troopers with not as much, but still considerable firepower.

<But they’re fucking perfect in a situation like this.>

The Commonwealth still kept some tanks in their inventory, and it looked like the Blockies did too, and they worked fantastic in a defensive situation like this where friendly fire support couldn’t get through the shields. Eve was willing to put a lot of money that Fourth Brigade was going to walk right into the teeth of a ton of those things during their attack.

Eve toggled the command channel and opened a link to the SGM. “You seeing what I’m seeing?” she didn’t catch the SGM’s grumbled cursing.

“Sending it to Fourth Brigade’s HQ. Good spot, Berg, now get over that wall.” The line went dead, and it still left Eve without a plan. She was still thinking when a flood of red icons started heading in her direction.

“Move!” The SGT pushed her through an already broken door as the enemy closed to within a few meters. If not for their cammo they would have been targeted and destroyed, but their V3s did their job and the enemy streamed past them.

There was only a slim piece of polyplast between the two Rangers and a rush of forty Blockie soldiers, but those soldiers didn’t bother to check the busted door, they had other things on their mind.

“They’re pulling back.” The SGT poked his head out of the door when the stampede of metal boots faded. “The tank is covering their retreat.”

Eve joined the SGT and looked at the backs of the Blockie soldiers. It looked like three platoons were falling back from three nearby streets toward the tank and the gate beyond it. The tanks turret swung in a smooth rhythm back and forth. Eve counted the length of two swivels as a plan took shape in her mind.

“How good is the cammo on these things?”

She couldn’t see the SGT’s face, but she saw him shaking his head. “No…no…no…”

Too late. The timing matched up. The platoon from their street was the first one to reach the gate, so their side was clear, and the turret was swinging in the other direction. Eve didn’t wait for the SGT to say anymore. She took off at a sprint to cover the fifty meters.

This was either going to be awesome or fatal.

She crossed the distance quickly with the power of her V3 LACS. She judged the approach as best she could and went into a slide like a baseball player going into home. The last of the troops from another street were streaming past the tank on the opposite side, and if they heard the scrape of her armor against the road they didn’t show it. Half a second later a second slide announced the SGT’s arrival. They both fit comfortably underneath the tank that was hovering a meter above the ground. They took care to avoid the anti-grav thrusters, found good places to grip, lifted themselves up, and secured themselves parallel to the bottom of the tank. With the rain being blocked by the tank’s bulk they were basically invisible.

“You forgot one thing,” the SGT was breathing heavy as adrenaline pumped through his system. “They’re probably going to check under this fucking beast when it comes back in…a visual inspection”

<Shit…> Eve was flying by the seat of her pants with this op, and she didn’t like it.

“Well then, I guess we’ll have to…”

She never got to finish. The biggest BOOM yet filled that air. The automated sensors in her helmet activated to block out the noise as the time-on-target wave of rounds smashed into the shield. She could only imagine what it looked like for Fourth Brigade, but she knew how it affected the tank. Whoever was driving this thing threw it into reverse and darted back underneath the protection of the shield.

The crew never even knew it had two stowaways. They were too worried about saving their own asses from the steel rain falling from above.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 43

“Geez, don’t these people have exams to study for?” Becca glared at people marching in a circle in front of the Student Center.

They were one of several groups that had taken up permanent residence in front of the building. The groups ran the gamut of intentions. One group tended to a small shrine and held twenty-four-seven vigils for the people lost in the terrorist attacks and Mr. Morningstar. Because they included the fallen Hero, they were slightly ostracized from most of the other groups.

One group was handing out fliers talking about the dangers of having an HCP on the campus and blaming the high concentration of Supers for the attacks the city had seen over the last eighteen months. Becca had actually looked up those numbers, and knew what those fliers were factually incorrect. The Super ratio in Orlando, even with the HCP, was well below average, and most of the Super population was transient college students at the city’s several universities not permanent residents. The group was spreading misinformation and blaming things on the HCP.

The anti-Super group had an ally in a more established, national organization that was handing out more comprehensive pamphlets about the dangers Supers posed to society. They’d arrived on campus hours after the attack, when wounds were still fresh, and started recruiting. Becca counted a dozen new students among their numbers approaching other students here and around the campus’ various quads with the literature.

At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, you had a group that advocated on behalf of Supers. Many had been helped by Heroes in the past, and they didn’t want all Supers’ reputations sullied by the acts of a few. They constantly pointed out to people who took the anti-Supers group’s literature that terrorists might have perpetrated the attacks, but Supers were the people that stopped them. They were big supporters of the Protectorate.

Sadly, as Becca passed through the doors of the student center and toward the sidewalk that led off campus to her home, she saw the pro-Super group was clearly outnumbered by their opposites. The final group wasn’t handing out pamphlets and fliers. The final group was the marching with signs with hateful slogans on it. They were the group walking up to people as they exited the building and ganging up on them, demanding to know their views on the situation, and shouting them down if they stated an opinion that they didn’t agree with.

<Most of them aren’t even students.> Kyoshi walked beside Becca and easily scanned the groups around them.

Becca took a closer look and saw that several members of the hostile anti-group were easily in the forties of fifties, they spanned the spectrum in race and gender, but they all looked fed up and angry, and were energized by the slogans being shouted about Becca and Kyoshi’s kind.

“Come on, let’s go.” Becca urged as they hurried down the steps.

They’d just finished their latest team competition which was one-on-one battles in the combat cells. The team had to coordinate who they were going to send into each fight, with each team alternating who they sent out first so the other team could respond. It was a test of strategy. It was a game of chess with the team members as pawns. You knew who was on the other team, but had no idea who was going to come out to face you. Some powers could counter others, and some people would clearly defeat others. Becca had been the first selected by Team Three to face off against their opponent: Team Two.

She ended up facing Janet Ibsen. The light manipulator was poorly matched against the speedster, and even after breaking out her new ability to now create multiple light-ropes, she still wasn’t able to pin Becca down before the speedster beat her into submission.

Becca’s win started off her team on solid footing and it only got better. They ended up winning five of the seven matches, making them the clear team victor. Team Two only claimed two victories. Jason Cook defeated Casey Williams to give them their first win. Becca believed the other team captain wanted to face off against Kimberly. Her multi-purpose orbs and his telekinetic attacks would have been a good match to watch, but when it came time for him to fight, Kimberly sent out Casey instead. It was still a good match, but the strongwoman couldn’t overcome the sheer force of Jason’s attacks. Kimberly ended up fighting in the final match against Teresa Shaw and won against the multi-species shifter.

The second victory for Team Two came at the hands of Anika, so Becca had trouble feeling too bad about her team’s loss. Anika went up against Richard Gibson in the second to last match. By then it was already over. Kimberly had played the matchups better than Jason, won the first five, and secured the overall win. It wasn’t to say Richard and Casey didn’t fight their hearts out. They were just poorly matched against their opponents.

Becca didn’t know how Teams One and Four fared, but she’d been riding on the high of victory until she exited the Student Center and was forced to stare at people who at best disagreed with her being what she was, and at worst hated her.

The only thing she could be thankful for was it was a bit chilly out today. They were in the final week of classes before Christmas break, and the meteorologists were predicting weather down in the forties for the rest of the week. That meant hats, gloves, long-sleeved shirts, and many other means of disguising what they were. Becca currently had on a cute hat, which she’d made sure all of her blue hair was covered by, and Kyoshi had on a similar hat and sunglasses. It was later in the day, and the sun was low, so the dark glasses hiding her golden eyes looked a little out of place, but not too much.

Unfortunately, nothing could hide Kyoshi’s height, and that caught the attention of several demonstrators.

“Do you feel afraid?” A woman separated herself from the marching protestors and made a beeline for Kysohi and Becca.

Becca couldn’t figure out if the woman was talking about them being Supers and afraid of the front united against them, or them being students and afraid of the attacks on the city where they went to school.

“No thank you,” Kyoshi answered quickly. “We’ve got exams to study for.”

“Are you afraid?” The woman repeated as she moved to block their path. She slipped on the stairs and almost fell, but Becca reached out and caught her. “Are you afraid?” The woman shrugged off the helping hand and planted herself in front of the two disguised Supers.

“I’m afraid I’m not going to pass my English 102 exam if I don’t have time to go through my notes on Pride and Prejudice.” Kyoshi answered the question without really answering it.

“You should be afraid. We should all be afraid.” There was fire in the woman’s eyes and her dark cheeks were flush with passion. “Supers are going to be the end of all of us. Look at what they’ve done. Look at what they are capable of. Don’t let this institution educate a new generation of killers!” The woman was practically screaming at the end of her little tirade.

A chant started up at the end echoing what the woman had said.

“We hear you, now we really need to go.” Becca tried to be diplomatic and move around the woman, but she shifted to block the path.

“You’re a tall one. You play basketball?” The woman’s pupils narrowed as she took in Kyoshi’s height.

“Volleyball in high school,” Kyoshi answered calmly, “but I’m not good enough to play NCAA D1, so I’m settling for a good education instead.”

Kyoshi must have had some assistance from what she was picking up from the woman’s mind, because she let the question of her unusual height go.

“What’s with the sunglasses?”

<Oh poop.> Becca tried not to let the hesitation show on her face, and couldn’t think of an answer quick enough.

Thankfully, someone else came to the rescue. “You ok?” Angela was walking casually down the steps behind them.

Unlike most of the people in their little group, Angela looked nothing like a Super. Sure, she was athletic, but she had no outwardly defining Super qualities. She was the best person to have in this situation, and even better, she had an answer locked and loaded.

“The Lasik giving you trouble?”

<Lasik surgery, duh.> Becca mentally slapped her forehead at the obvious. After Lasik you had to wear sunglasses to protect your fragile eyes.

“A little. All the studying isn’t helping the strain, but I’m getting by.” Kyoshi smiled back at Angela, and the protesting woman relented with her suspicions alleviated.

“Stay in school and away from dangerous people.” She obviously meant Supers without actually saying it.

Campus security was arriving as the three Supers departed the Student Center. The protestors started yelled about their rights, but the fact was that they were on private property, not students, and the security office had received several calls about students being harassed. Thankfully, it didn’t get violent, but accusations of the university cops being fascists were thrown around as the angrier members of the groups started to depart.

It all left Becca with a growing fear of the state of the city and the school. They weren’t the only HCP campus to get hit. Reports were coming out of Lander of student groups organizing and demanding the close of the HCP after the Crucible that killed several students the year before. The other three campuses hadn’t been attacked, or near the site of attacks, but they were getting their own flak from citizens and student groups fearful that Supers were going to get their children killed.

<It’s not a great time to be in an HCP.> Becca concluded, but she couldn’t think about the right now. She had a math final to prepare for, and she hated math.

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PCS to Eden – Prologue – The Fall

“Someone give me a SITREP!” A short, broad-shouldered man with black wings and twin gladiuses crisscrossed across his back marched among his men.

Half a legion of wounded defiled the former Golden Hall of Prince Seere, but it was no longer great. Ash, dirt, and blood coated the once pristine floor and the Hall made no move to cleanse itself of the filth. It was a constant reminder that their Lord was gone.

“General Icilius!” A scout dropped down through a hole in the roof left by the enemy’s bombardment. His landing kicked up the dust and started a fit of coughing in the nearby walking wounded. “The latest reports from the front,” he bowed low like he would for their former Lord.

For all intents and purposes, Gaius Icilius was the Infernal Lord of what remained of Prince Seere’s lands; although, he was neither Infernal nor a Lord.  It didn’t matter right now because what these lands needed was a general, and he was the best left in the Kingdom.

“General Lee is holding at the Styx.” Gaius cracked a rare smile.

“Yes, Sir. Cain continues to throw everything he can spare against us, but the General is holding his ground.” The scout shook out his brown wings, which had a few noticeable holes in them. His flight in had been eventful.

“Get patched up before you leave.” Gaius pointed toward the healers moving among the injured. They had to ration their power, but he couldn’t help but reward the messenger for the good news.

<Cain was never the real problem.> He smothered the embers of hope in his chest and read the rest of the report.

The last of Seere’s towns had surrendered to Beelzebub. The Lord of All That Flies was continuing he annexation-by-force of Seere’s land and all who used to serve him. The Dux of the town had been a fool and hoped that by letting the Infernal Lord’s horde in without fighting he would be merciful. That had ended with the entire town butchered, their heads chopped off, and displayed on pikes that were being marched up and down the siege lines of the Capitol like trophies.

Gaius offered the reward of an extra ration of bread to any sniper who took down the standard bearers who were affecting his army’s morale. His men had jumped at the opportunity. Gaius and never been a fan of snipers. He found their style of warfare dishonorable, but he couldn’t dispute their effectiveness.

The ground rumbled and he braced himself until the shockwave passed. He couldn’t tell if that was his force’s artillery barrage or Beelzebub’s creatures dive-bombing his trenches and dropping thousand-pound hollow balls of explosive acids. Either way, men were dying by the droves on both sides.

Gaius resumed his confident stride as he pushed through the ornate door to the throne room. The delicate carvings were unblemished, but the door itself had been knocked off its top hinge and was hanging precariously. The massive entrance would crush the closest group of wounded if it collapsed, but they didn’t seem to care. Death by falling door was much better than death by the beaks and talons of Beelzebub’s patchwork creatures.

The throne room was bustling with activity, but everyone stepped aside to make a path for their general. In the center of a room was a giant map of the capitol city and the surrounding countryside with the wispy outlines of the two battling armies. The city showed signs of damage just about everywhere. A nonstop stream of air-defense weaponry was keeping Beelzebub’s flying legions at bay, but they were running low on ammunition, and until they could replenish it they were vulnerable to aerial attack, which was the Lord of All That Flies’ specialty. Even worse, the new ammunition wouldn’t be as effective as what they were currently using.

Infernal Iron took an Infernal’s blessing to empower it with æther. Without the influx of the fundamental building block of the universe they would just be firing plain iron. Their effectiveness would be several orders of magnitude lower, and they were barely getting by with what they had now.

A quick look at the quartermaster tallies next to the map showed they had a day – maybe two – if they rationed the Infernal Iron’s use. They couldn’t make more with Seere gone. Gaius pushed down the growing despair and focused on something he could influence: the mass of black rolling across the map and completely encircling the city on three sides.

Beelzebub had felt the death of Seere just like all of his subjects, and promptly pounced on the opportunity. Thirty legions – three hundred thousand monsters –surged across the border in a blitzkrieg that had overwhelmed the boarder fortifications without Seere’s assistance. Four whole legions were lost as they were encircled and destroyed. The eight that survived the initial onslaught were thinned out in the fighting retreat toward the Capitol. Many took refuge in the smaller cities throughout the kingdom, but they were besieged and eliminated. Within a week of Seere’s death twelve of his twenty-six Infernal legions were wiped from existence. The remaining fourteen were split between the frontier with Cain and the Capitol. General Lee commanded the sixty-thousand men at the border and Gaius commanded the eighty-thousand men defending the Capitol.

Normally, losses wouldn’t be an issue, but with Seere gone they were as mortal as humans again. The latest figures showed one in twenty men were returning from the Resurrection Pool. The Pool was cannibalizing those individual soldiers’ æther as part of the process since it had been robbed of its original power source. Only those with a significant amount of power at death were returning, and they came out weak and nearly useless from the process.

<A warm body is a warm body.> Gaius reminded himself that he could always find a use for a man who could hold a weapon. Even the whores were being pressed into service in the forges and on the front lines. Morale had taken a considerable hit because of it.

Gaius watched the map with concentration born from a millennia of experience. It was real-time information, and he watched the ebb and flow of battle like a master painter critiquing brushstrokes.

<There!> He saw the surge building before the enemy could lash out against his lines and break through.

“All guns, fire for effect on my command at this location.” The activity in the throne room grew even more frenzied as the order was relayed to the batteries throughout the city.

The gun crews were well-trained and waited for the order. They waited for several minutes until Gaius finally saw a thick knot of black surge toward a perceived weakness in his lines.

“FIRE!” Hell screamed and seemed to tear itself in two as hundreds of guns fired from all across the city at one location.

The explosive Infernal Iron shells stopped the charge dead in its tracks and rolled like a wave back into the heart of Beelzebub’s formation. The blackness around the city visibly staggered as something vital was wiped from the playing field.

<Excellent.> A section of the black was going mad. The barrage had killed an enemy leader of some kind and his troops had lost all cohesion and sanity. <They’ll spend hours trying to bring thousands of troops back into the fray.> It gave Gaius some breathing room.

He turned away from the map and looked for a young captain. “Status?”

The Captain’s brow was covered in sweat as he stepped away from the throne room’s central feature. Nearly an entire company of men were rotating through the massive task of securing Seere’s throne.

“We’ve nearly got it secure, Sir. Removing it from the land has taken nearly all of our remaining power, but once we pry it free it’ll move like any old big-ass chair.” The Captain smiled.

“Can we tap it?” That was what Gaius really wanted to know. He had no idea how much power the Divine Instrument held, but he was sure it was enough to do serious damage to the invading army.

The Captain just shrugged in reply. He was a soldier not an ætherial scholar. There were no scholars in the Kingdom because no one ever thought they’d be in the situation they were currently in.

No one thought Seere would ever fall.

“Find me when you’ve secured it and assembled the guard.” Gaius dropped his voice low enough so no one but the two of them could hear.

Gaius Icilius might be many things but he was not the type of man to go down with his sinking ship; especially when it wasn’t his ship to begin with. He was the type of man to build his own lifeboat with whatever he had available, kill anyone who got in his way, and made sure he made it out alive. It was a good thing he’d never even heard of the Titanic, or the movie would have had a very different ending.

“General!” A voice called out in panic. It was a voice Gaius knew well, and the man it belonged to was not prone to fear.

He sprinted back toward the map and immediately saw the problem. The city had been completely encircled on three sides for days, but the fourth side was dominated by the sea and a wall of gloomy fog. In all the time he’d lived in the Capitol, no one was allowed to fly over the sea. It was rumored only Seere could survive whatever was out there on the fringe of Hell. Now, a mass of black was soaring over the water like an approaching storm, and he had no one there to oppose them.

“Retarget all air-defense guns to the sea. All available airborne units are to assemble at the beach. Artillery needs to keep the enemies’ heads down along the siege lines. Reserves to the Hall!”

<Stupid!> Gaius kept his face composed as he chewed himself out. The last attack had been a feint to draw attention from the sea. It had come at the cost of over ten thousand lives, but if they were able to break the city’s back then it wouldn’t matter. <And if everything goes to hell I need to be able to get the hell out of here.>

The Captain now had a time limit.

Gaius watched the map as eleven thousand airborne soldiers barreled toward over forty thousand of Beelzebub’s horde. The air-defense guns roared to life and put a wall of iron between the two forces until right before they clashed. It thinned the herd and Beelzebub’s minions fell from the sky like dark rain, but it was still over two to one odds when it became hand-to-hand combat.

“Deploy the reserves. I want a final defensive line here.” He pointed toward the brownstones near the Hall. “Snipers target the leaders. Get the men on the roofs with whatever we have left.” They’d dug heavy machine guns into positions around the Hall and held in reserve a number of rocket launchers.

<I need more time.> He kept that thought to himself, but nervously glanced over his shoulder at the Captain and his team trying to pry the throne from the floor.

“Shit!”

Gaius saw it just as a Colonel let out the curse. A detachment of aerial fighters broke off from the main fight and dive-bombed a section of Gaius’ line that anchored the flank at the beach. He didn’t know what they dropped, but the resulting explosion nearly threw him off his feet. He recovered quickly, but with the reserves committed to defending the Hall there was nothing to stop Beelzebub’s troops from surging into the city, wreaking havoc, and rolling up the thin line of soldiers standing between the populace and certain death.

The situation had gone from precarious to hopeless in less than half an hour.

“Fire everything we’ve got! Turn them to ash!” It wouldn’t plug the hole, but it might slow them down.

Gaius heard the grunt and felt the shift as the Captain moved the throne. The Golden Hall gave a shudder and the ever-present luminous quality faded away. What once felt like a welcome home with a hearth full of men ready to drink and fight was now just a big building with a target drawn on it.

“Anyone with wings on me!”  Gaius showed off his impressive wingspan and troops flocked to him.

“Captain?”

“Yes, sir.” The young officer easily carried over the golden throne.

Gaius body swelled to three times its normal size so the Captain could latch it to his back between his wings.

“Protect the Throne of Seere!” He had both gladiuses in his hands now and he pumped them up and down as he changed.

“Protect the Throne of Seere!”

“Protect the Throne of Seere!”

“Protect the Throne of Seere!”

He worked the small contingent of soldiers into a frenzy, and with a final pump pointed to the hole in the roof. A thousand soldiers streamed through it with bloodlust clouding the minds.

Four times as many soldiers were waiting for them. They cut each other to pieces.

“Air defense cover me!” Gaius stepped under the hole with the assembled guard.

Unlike the rag tag group who’d just flown to their death, the guard was five hundred well-armed, trained, and powerful soldiers. Gaius waited until the heavy boom of nearby guns and contrails of rockets whizzed by the opening before shooting off into the sky.

It was madness.

Gaius could feel the air everywhere shuddering with violence as high-velocity rounds cut through it toward their targets. He had to deftly dodge a few outbound artillery shells as they screamed toward targets threatening the siege lines. To his left, the city burned from a combination of plunder and the artillery’s failing attempt to beat back the horde. It was a different sight than what he’d seen on the map – more brutal – but one he was still accustomed to, and the conclusion was clear.

The city would fall within the next few hours. Gaius needed to retreat, but there would be no retreat for the trapped legions. They would attempt a break out, but they had to be down to fewer than fifty thousand men now, and they were up against at least five times their numbers. It wouldn’t succeed.

“Sir, we need to move.” They’d lingered just a few seconds too long and had caught the attention of an aerial patrol. At least a thousand of Beelzebub’s soldiers altered course and shot straight at them.

The boom of air-defense guns drowned out the guards’ roar as they headed straight for the patrol with Gaius at the head of the formation. By the time they reached them the guns had evened their numbers. Gaius and most of the guard flew threw them. Several limbs fell to the earth while ear-splitting shrieks of limbless foes squawked in their guttural tone for their bastard Lord to save them.

“Cover our retreat, Captain.”

The young officer nodded and peeled away with a hundred men. They looped around and reengaged the enemy while Gauis poured on the speed and shot toward General Lee’s army to the north.

He would regroup there and figure out his next move. He did even see the Captain and his men fall to their deaths covering him as he left his home of over a thousand years to burn.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 169

Duchess Josephina Barrow

Location: Windsor City, Windsor, Star Kingdom of Windsor

“Is this confirmed?” The Duchess, who also served as the Chief of Intelligence for the Star Kingdom, watched the man in the red dress uniform of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy closely. “Think very carefully about how you respond because it will determine the foreign policy of this Kingdom for the next generation.”

The man was tall, fit, came from a noble house, and was every inch the product of rigorous training and genetic expression, but after the Duchess’ words he gulped nervously.

“Reading long range sensor scans is as much an art as a science, especially from this distance,” he began, “but I’m willing to stand by my production. We have seventy-two to ninety-six hours, Your Grace.”

“Shit.” Josephina leaned back in her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and pointer finger. She hated showing weakness in front of subordinates, but this was a rare exception.

“Begin preparations, Lord Admiral. I must go see the Queen.” She rose and the Admiral snapped a small bow.

It was never a question what the proper etiquette between them was. The options were a salute for her governmental position as Chief of Intelligence or a bow for being a Duchess. Peerage always won. He scurried out of the door, as much as a man nearly two and a quarter meters tall could scurry, and was immediately mobbed by his considerable staff. All of the nervousness he’d shown in her office was gone. He issued commands like he ran a Fleet, which he did.

Josephina went the other direction, after making sure her office auto locked behind her. The Royal Marine sentry standing guard didn’t move, and knew no one aside from a few very specific people were allowed into her office when she wasn’t there.

“Bring the car.” She spoke to no one in particular as her personal guard fell in behind her.

An armored air car hovered in position by the time she exited the inconspicuous government building she worked in. Whitehall was two kilometers away, and Parliament twice that. The distance could be irritating at times when face-to-face meetings were required, but it also gave her breathing room so she wasn’t constantly entangled in parliamentary politics. It was a good thing for everyone.

The last time she’d been forced to speak to Parliament it had ended with a man thinking his honor had been impugned, a duel, and that man dead in the dirt. By law, Westwoodshire had been added to her holdings, so any heir she produced would not only be the Duke or Duchess of Rose Bay, but also the Count or Countess of Westwoodshire. For now, she would turn over management of the Shire to her youngest sister. The girl was thirty years younger than Josephina, had been skating by so far on the family name, and needed a new direction in life. Being charged with the administration of a Shire with three hundred thousand subjects would be a good starting point.

Josephina was happy to have the extra revenue added to her monthly peerage stipend. Someone in her position and with her needs could always use more funds, but the stipend didn’t cover any businesses and industry her family purchased or started in the new Shire. Westwoodshire’s timber industry was used for luxury goods through the Kingdom, and its pulp for more standard manufacturing processes. Now, the goods coming from some of the best carpenters on Windsor would have the Barrow family crest blessing their work.

The hardest part of the transition was ensuring the loyalty of those the foolish Count left behind. All the extra work went to staff members, and she couldn’t replace everyone, just like she couldn’t replace all of the old Count’s lancers – soldiers who swore an oath to serve a Noble House. By law, members of the nobility were allowed a small protective force – both soldiers and ships – to secure their holdings. The number was set by a mixture of precedent, royal favor, and demographics. Westwoodshire had thirty-five-hundred lancers and two destroyers that were now members of the House of Barrow’s force. Josephina put trusted men and women in key positions, but it would take time, patience, and good pay to secure the loyalty of the new soldiers and administrators.

On top of that, she needed to be conscious of the potential of a blood feud between the shamed Count’s surviving family and her own. Because of her position, Josephina was untouchable, but some of her extended family could be vulnerable. She had siblings, who had children, and those children had children. Then there were her cousins, and some of her aunts and uncles were still alive, but she was the matriarch of her house. It fell to her to use her resources and reputation to stop the old Count’s family and allies from seeking vengeance. It was amazing the types of changes a single thrust of a nano-blade could bring about.

As far as any day-to-day issues, Josephina’s sister would handle any disloyalty. Managing people Josephina would only see once or twice year didn’t make sense with all her responsibilities, but there was something truly satisfying about the whole process despite all of the hassle. She’d legally retrieved land from the Low Nobility. The Counts, Countesses, Barons, and Baronesses thought because they’d done something good at one point in their life that they were a noble house. They were sadly mistaken, and now House Barrow was stronger than ever because of a Count’s naiveté.

<When I find a husband I’ll have him deal with all this.> She dreaded even the few events she’d have to participate in as part of the transfer of power.

She pushed the thought of family to the back of her brain. She was the firstborn, but had never sought to marry and have children. There was no time for that right now. Maybe after the conflict passed she would find some well-bred war hero, but until then, her Kingdom required her full attention.

“The Palace.” She didn’t look up from her notes as the car zoomed off to its destination. The priority transmission coming from the car ensured traffic parted for her. Anyone that didn’t was ticketed by the automatic traffic features of Windsor City’s streets, and would probably get a visit from their local Bobbies about proper civic protocol.

The Palace was a modern, larger replica of Windsor Castle, but it sat on the outskirts of the city instead of right in the center. It reinforced the standard that people came to the Queen. The Queen did not come to them.

A dozen square kilometers of lush greenery surrounded the palace, and the grounds were secured by soldiers in the black armor of the Obsidian Guard. A whole squad of them manned the front gate. They looked like they could take on an army and win. The nobles might have their lancers, but those were mortal men and women. The Obsidians were the closest thing to demigods of war science had been able to create, aside from the High-Nobles themselves.

<That’s the point.> The Obsidian Guard were the best, and the best were there to protect the Kingdom’s most cherished possession.

Josephina had barely left the vehicle when she dropped into a low curtsey. Queen Victoria IV marched out of the large, ornate doorway with her pale blonde hair swept behind her by the soft breeze.

“Rise,” she waved to Josephina, but kept on walking. They might be old friends, but in public she was Queen.

Josephina rose out of her curtsey and followed four steps behind the tall, elfin woman. She didn’t speak a word as the Queen marched into her favorite gardens, past the one-story-tall family coat-of-arms made of multicolored roses, and back to her private tea area. Her guards peeled off to stand around the small clearing while she waved for Josephina to join her at the table. Josephina stayed standing until the Victoria was seated.

She sat their silently while the Queen took a biscuit and began to lather jam onto it.

“I’m with child.” She didn’t look up.

Despite her best intentions, Josephina’s professionalism cracked and a big smile crossed her face. “That’s fantastic news, V…Your Majesty.” She caught herself at the end.

“Yes, it is.” Despite the smile teasing the corners of the Queen’s mouth, the rest of her face was composed. “So, it ruined my mood a little that on the day we planned to announce my pregnancy to the Kingdom I also get word that the lid of our whole operation is about to be blown clean off.”

“It was beyond our control, Your Majesty.”

“I had assurances we would have more time.” She shot a look over her shoulder at a wall of finely-carved shrubs.

Josephina looked closer and saw there was someone back there with a large number of guards standing between them and the Queen.

“They stepped up their schedule…” the voice was robotic and spoken through a translator.

“Never mind them,” Victoria cut off the voice. “The question is what do we do now?”

“Our hand is being forced.” Josephina addressed the Queen more than the person in the shadows. “Lord Admiral Kent is mustering the fleet. We need to hit hard and fast. If the Ambassador promises troops and ships…”

“I do not,” the robotic voice answered immediately.

“Well then, we’ll handle this alone.” Josephina replied with complete confidence.

“Will we beat them to their destination?” the Queen asked.

“From the figures Lord Kent has sent me…no. We’ll be at least twenty hours behind them, and that’s only if we marshal a portion of our forces. To step off with our battle plan, as originally presented, he’d need another four days to consolidate.”

“We can’t give them that time.” Victoria ate a tiny bite of the biscuit and grimaced. “Bloody morning sickness.” She swallowed with considerable effort and gave Josephina a glare. “You’re next.” She didn’t sound like she was kidding. “Even if I have to royally decree it, you’re going to feel my pain and give my children a playmate.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Josephina knew from her friend’s other pregnancies that she shouldn’t be joking at a time like this. “Concerning the fleet…”

“Deploy the fleet and secure the objective. Be about it.” The Queen turned her attention back to her biscuit.

Josephina rose, curtsied deeply, and walked at a brisk pace back to her air-car. Things were about to change, and she needed to make sure the Star Kingdom of Windsor came out of this on top. Anything less than that was unacceptable.

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