Two Worlds – Chapter 122

Eve Berg

Location: Rogue Island, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “I heard they ran like a bunch of little bitches.”

“I heard that the Fleet is spanking them all up and down the system.”

“I heard you have a foot-long dick. That tells me you can’t believe everything you hear.” The gaggle of infantry sitting across from Eve laughed as their Spyder Assault shuttle rocketed through space toward Rogue Island’s upper atmosphere.

Unlike the three young grunts, Eve had a better idea what was going on. Her V3 LACS only had limited connectivity with the higher levels of STRATNET, but it didn’t take a genius to understand what happened. She doubted the Blockies were being little bitches or getting their asses spanked so easily. You didn’t stand toe-to-toe with the galactic starfaring powerhouse that was the United Commonwealth of Colonies by being cowardly or stupid. Most likely, the Blockies were executing a fighting retreat. They only had a handful of ships against the full might of the Commonwealth task force, so they couldn’t do more than harass the larger force as it approached the planet. The battlecruisers and destroyers had to be careful of the two Blockie battleships, but the twenty-plus Commonwealth battleships didn’t have much to worry about.

Of course, all of this meant jackshit to the infantry dropping onto the planet. All they cared about was that hornet’s nest they were about to kick over.

“Rangers, listen up.” The six SPECOPS members in the Spyder focused on their NCOIC.

Even though SGM Queen was present he wasn’t leading this operation. He was an extra gun, and a failsafe if shit really went sideways. The SGT was running the show.

“Latest intel says that the Blockies were able to pull half of their people off this rock before they had to bug out. Good news is that it only leaves us with a few battalions worth of them to kill. Bad news is, there are only a few battalions of them for us to kill.” That got some chuckles out of the other Rangers, but Eve kept her mouth shut.

“Our mission hasn’t changed. We’re going to land here and clear this area for an LZ. The infantry grunts on board are going to hold that position for the second wave once we’ve secured it. At that time, we are going to push toward the PDC. We’re only getting some snippets of radio transmissions getting through the Blockie’s jammers. We’re going to get to our people and assess the situation. Recon is doing the same from the east. And infantry is handling north and south. We’re creating a box around these remaining assholes. Once we’ve got them boxed in, were going to tighten the noose and finish them. Questions?”

There were no questions.

“Rangers lead the way!”

“Rangers lead the way!” The reply was loud and thunderous. They really were leading the way on this one. That, and they were competing with Recon to see who could get to the PDC first.

The first jerk of the Spyder hitting the atmosphere put an end to the SGT’s briefing. They were already locked in tight and secure, but every other Ranger onboard had done a combat drop before. If they were shutting up then there was a good reason.

What had started as a smooth ride to the planet suddenly deteriorated into a clusterfuck. Or at least that’s what if felt like. Eve nearly threw up in her LACS three times from all the crazy maneuvers and hairpin turns that seemed to defy the laws of physics. She felt bad for the regular infantry. With their thinner armor they’d be walking away from this ride with some ugly bruises.

But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was not having any idea what the hell was going on. She was locked out of the Spyder’s external sensors along with everyone but the Ranger SGT and the infantry’s NCOIC.

<This is why I didn’t join the fleet.> She repeated several times as the Spyder dipped, dived, ducked, and dodged through Rogue Island’s atmosphere. <One second I’m ready to fight and then next I could be disintegrating ash making a nice light show across the sky. I want to be boots on the ground with my foot in someone’s ass. If I die I want to see it coming.>

“Ranger’s on your feet.”

Eve was surprised the command over TACCOM came right as the Spyder made a pretty sizable jerk.

“Magnetize boots!”

Eve did what she was told without thinking. It was a good thing she did, because the back of the Spyder opened up and they were in a corkscrew.

Explosions and energy blasts filled her HUD as the flight of Spyders contended with the Blockies air defense artillery.  Thankfully, most of the explosions seemed to be missiles getting blasted from the sky by the Spyder’s countermeasures, but she did see one assault shuttle get clipped and go into a death spiral.

<Fifty men gone just like that.>

 It had been a long time since Eve felt true fear, so long she’d almost forgotten what it was. But there was no mistaking the emotion as it grabbed ahold of her gut and threatened to expel her meager meal one of two ways.

“Thirty seconds!” The SGT yelled as he cautiously stomped forward under the power of his suit. Without the suit, he would have snapped his leg in half from the sheer force of the evasive maneuvers.

“Let’s go, Berg.” The SGM prodded her forward as the rest of the Ranger team started marching toward the open rear ramp.

It took her a moment to figure out what was happening, but when she did she had to take a couple of deep breaths. It was common knowledge that a Spyder was at its most vulnerable when it was on the ground and dropping off troops. Plenty of good men and women had died in those crucial ten seconds of an operation. Plenty of good Rangers had too.

So the SPECOPS training and doctrine teams thought of ways to mitigate that risk for the expensively trained and equipped Rangers. With the V3s and their grav-boots the answer was simple: get out of the Spyder before it lands and becomes vulnerable. That was the SGT’s plan as they lined up three across and two deep on the ramp.

The Spyder was spinning toward the ground in a textbook combat descent. Eve’s HUD gave her some data to work off of.

<Three hundred meters…two-fifty…two hundred…one-fifty…one hundred…> Her eyes were glued to the spinning world beneath her.

“GO!” The SGT’s words cut through the daze and she punched in the command.

The grav-boots pulsed and she shot off the ramp. Unlike the two other people in her line who went straight she angled to the left.

“Berg, duck!” Was all the warning the SGM was able to give her before the jet wash from the Spyder’s engines swatted her from the sky like some annoying fly.

She went spinning out of control. For a second she couldn’t tell her ass from her head as her controls went haywire.

“Fucking newbie.” She heard the SGT’s words but couldn’t see him anymore.

<Find the horizon and orient.> Despite the vomit in her throat the training took over.

She concentrated on the gyroscope, lined up the horizon and fired her boots to reorient. It was a given that she was way out of position, but at least she wasn’t going to plow into the ground face first.

“I’m good.” Eve sent back to the SGM. She was too embarrassed to radio the SGT. “I’ll rendezvous with you guys in two minutes.”

She grabbed for her Buss at her side, which had miraculously stayed attached to her armor, and gripped it tight as she descended the last few meters to land on the top of a building. It had a nice rooftop garden that looked well-maintained, and there was even a little fountain at the center still spurting out H2O despite everything that was going on.

Thankfully, she’d been admiring the fountain or she would have missed the camouflaged bulge just to the side of it. That was all the warning she got before the RPG fired straight at her chest.

Instinct took over. She slid to the side with super-quickness like she was skating on air. The RPG flew wide and detonated against the side of the next building. Eve didn’t worry about that. Her HUD’s carrot was already lining up with the human figure next to the fountain and she was pulling the trigger. 3mm plasma tipped rounds churned through the fountain, the person, and the rooftop with minimal effort. There wasn’t even any deflection as the rounds killed her attacker.

“Contact at my location. One enemy down. SITREP to follow.”

The Ranger SGT acknowledged on TACCOM with a simple ping that lit up the comms channel green. He was too busy right now to worry about what some newbie had done when she was stupid enough to get in the way of a Spyder’s jet wash.

She moved quickly and efficiently after that. She approached what remained of the human body, which was getting drizzled on by the fountain she’d expertly killed as well. The body had no armor, only a set of fatigues that looked a few centuries old.

<It isn’t even smartcloth.>

“Sergeant Major, this guy wasn’t a Blockie. He was just some idiot with an RPG and not enough sense to know friend from foe.” She was surprised her voice held so much emotion. The guy had tried to kill her.

But that tended to happen the first time you killed another human being in anger.

“Shake it off, Berg. It was probably one of the insurrectionists that were fighting it out with us before the Blockies rolled into town. Focus on the mission and get your ass over here.” The SGM cut the line and Eve took his advice.

She shook it off, moved to the edge of the roof, and jumped. Her boots activated and she skated off toward the rendezvous point where the infantry were securing the perimeter. She didn’t meet any more resistance along the way. Apparently, the RPG taking down some apartment building’s wall was enough to have anyone else nearby shelter in place.

While she was busy dealing with the lone militiaman, the rest of the Rangers and infantry had been mopping up the LZ. When she arrived there were half a dozen camouflaged bodies in the reds, browns, and greens of Blockie infantry.

“Berg, get your shit together.” Were the only words of wisdom the SGT gave her before he gave the order to move out.

The headed off in the direction of the PDC. They advanced as buddy teams over a three block area with a block separating them. One went low, moving quickly and efficiently through the deserted streets. The other went high, providing overwacth as they moved from rooftop to rooftop. They met minimal resistance, nothing a Buss couldn’t handle, and by the time they’d reached the outskirts of the PDC Eve had two more kills under her belt.

Those kills felt legitimate though. They’d been Blockie regulars in armor fighting to keep the Rangers from advancing toward their objective. They hadn’t been some local moron who thought they could take on a highly-trained special operations trooper in heavy armor with an antiquated weapons system. No matter how hard she tried to shake it she couldn’t get the look of that poor bastard out of her head. Most of his chest had been blasted to smithereens by the 3mm round, but the look of surprise on his face was something she doubted she’d forget today.

<Focus, Eve.> She stopped the pity-party and focused on her corners.

The orange overlay of the PDC’s shield on her HUD rose up in front of her when the six Rangers reconsolidated. Everything was quiet, but they were still having some trouble getting communications through. Wherever the jammer was they hadn’t destroyed it yet.

“I just hope they don’t shoot us in the ass.” The SGT actually sounded happy as they approached the shield.

Like anything moving below a certain speed they passed right through the invisible energy barrier. Things looked just as bad on the inside as they did from the outside. The PDC had been chewed up and shit out. There were hardly any structures left standing except for the central buildings. Even the shield generator looked like it had taken some hits. If Eve was to take an educated guess she’d say the shield wasn’t even operating at one hundred percent anymore.

<It was a good thing we got here when we did.> She doubted they would have lasted another twenty-four hours.

“Attention JB Sullivan PDC. This is Ricochet One-One, leading Ranger Team One coming in with six friendlies at your two-seven-zero. Please acknowledge.”

Now was the moment of truth. They’d see if there was anyone still left defending the PDC and if they’d beaten the Recon guys to the objective. Eve honestly couldn’t tell you which one the SGT was more excited about.

“Thank fucking god.” A voice came over TACCOM after a few tense seconds. “This is Chaos Six. Authenticate: Bravo-Zulu- Eight-Niner-Zero-Four.”

“Authenticate: Alpha-Delta- Seven-Six-Two-Seven.” The SGT replied back. The V3s connection with the PDCs STRATNET node should have been enough to confirm they were who they said they were, but Eve couldn’t blame the local commander for wanting additional authentication after all the shit they’d gone through.

“Good copy, Ricochet One-One. We’re holding fire. Thanks for answering our call.”

“It’s what we do.” The SGT made the move-out motion and they started bounding forward toward the shield generator.

“Be advised, Ricochet One-One, we’re black on just about everything. We need immediate medical attention for multiple wounded. We need body bags, and we need to get the fuck off this piece of shit rock.”

“Roger that, Chaos Six, we’ll pass along the message.”

They saw the first signs of the resistance about two hundred meters from the shield generator. A squad of ragtag looking soldiers poked their heads out of a hole and gave the Ranger team a wave. Eve waved back, but was the only one to do so.”

“Rangers, I’m going to confer with Chaos. I want you five to start triage. Mark the wounded on STRATNET so that the docs can prioritize when they arrive. Judging by the numbers I’m getting we’re going to need most of the task force’s medics down here.”

They split up as information started to update on their HUD as the local commander gave them access to their STRATNET data.

<Shit,> was all the Eve could think of as she saw the numbers of black and red icons start to climb higher and higher.

Their briefing said there had been two full battalions on the planet. From what she was seeing on her screen, only about seven hundred were still up and moving.

<Only thing I can do is get to work.> She pinged a location that she was going to handle and approached it.

It was bad.

Lots of soldiers had holes in them. A few were missing limbs, there was a lot of blood outside of bodies, and those seriously injured were only being kept alive by their armor. One by one Eve walked up to the wounded and made a connection by touching her gauntlet to their helmets. She analyzed their armor’s data and identified them as: urgent, urgent surgical, priority, routine, and convenience. Those that didn’t look like they could hold out were marked as convenience because it would be convenient to remove their bodies from the battlefield for hygienic safety purposes. No one wanted any lingering bacteria causing any infections.

For the most part, the soldiers she dealt with were priority. They needed to be evacuated promptly or within four hours. If they didn’t they’d be in deep shit. There were a few routine cases in the bunch, so they could last a day before getting transportation. But for every routine case there was an urgent or urgent surgical. These soldiers needed to get out of there ASAP or within two hours. Some needed to go straight to the nearest surgical unit if they wanted to live.

Even though she wasn’t supposed to, she gave most of her supply of medical nanites to the urgent or urgent surgical patients to get them just a little extra time to get help.

“We’ve got a few more over here.” A CPL was helping her with the triage. He had a broken foot but was otherwise unharmed. With some improvised crutches he was making himself useful.

He led Eve around some rubble and toward two hulking figures.

“We dug them out of a destroyed building about twelve hours ago. Battalion Doc gave them the last of our medical nanites six hours ago.”

Eve knelt down and made a connection with the HI trooper. He was a SSG and he was priority. The medical nanites were doing their job to stop the cerebral hemorrhaging. The broken bones could wait, but he needed to get out of here soon.

She tagged him and moved on to the second suit. The usually grayish metal was mixed brown and black now. Black from burns and brown from being buried alive. She made the connection and immediately could tell the trooper was unconscious.

That wasn’t the only thing she figured out.

“Gunney!” Eve couldn’t believe it. Her Basic instructor, who seemed more goddess than mortal woman, was lying before her on the brink of death.

There was lots of internal bleeding. Thirty percent of the bones in her body were broken. Her oxygen levels were really low, but the worst of all was the radiation poisoning. She’d been way too close to an energy blast, which explained the burn marks. Whatever reason she had for being so close the result was that her body was quickly giving up. The armor had recorded two seizures in the last two hours. Her lungs had severe inflammation and scaring, her white blood cell count was way down, and there were bad burns across her skin despite the armor.

She was urgent if Eve had ever seen one.

<I can’t just mark her and move on.> That’s what Eve should have done and she knew that. But this was Gunney Cunningham. She couldn’t just leave her like another random soldier.

“Sergeant Major. I’ve got a Ranger down over here.” Eve skipped the SGT and went straight to the big guy.

“Mark them and move on, Private.” The SGM replied emotionlessly.

“I…I can’t, Sergeant Major. I know her from Basic. She’s an ass kicker. I can’t just leave her.”

Her reply was met with several seconds of silence. “Bring her to the casualty collection point. We’ll put her on the first bird out of here.” The line went dead, and Eve knew she was going to catch some shit for it.

<Don’t care.> She thanked the CPL for his help and hoisted the GYSGT up over her shoulder. She walked around to the other side of the shield generator where a new LZ was being cleared out for an incoming wave of birds.

She got the first signs of life from the GYSGT when she half lowered; half dropped her onto the asphalt among the other urgent candidates.

“What the fuck?” The Gunney was groggy, clearly in pain, and clearly not wanting to be moved.

“Take it easy, Gunney. We’re getting you out of here.” Eve patted the NCO’s armored shoulder, which only made her wince.

“I must be dead. Because you sound like Berg, and if I’m getting rescued by some newbie right out of Basic then you might as well leave me to die.” Her laugh turned into a cough.

“It’s been a while, Gunney. I’m a Ranger now. I’m not going to leave you behind.” That seemed to instill some sense of calm in the older NCO before she lost consciousness again.

Thankfully, that was when the first flight of Spyders poked through the cloud cover and came down hard toward the PDC. They were taking much less fire than the first wave, but not all of the Blockies’ ADA batteries were down yet. Eve didn’t see anyone take more than superficial damage.

The Spyders landed in a straight line where people and hovering pallets started to stream off of them. Medical nanites by the truckload were going to be used to stabilize and save lives before they could get the wounded up to the surgical suites on the warships. Eve was able to talk a specialist out of an injection and quickly used it on the GYSGT. It was still a decent ride up to the ships parked in orbit and she didn’t want her dying before they got there. Since Eve was the only person capable of picking the GYSGT up, she got her onto the assault shuttle. She was about to get off when the SGM stopped her.

“We’re hitching a ride with them, Berg.”

“Why?” Eve looked down the ramp at the chaos.

“We’re the tip of the spear not the shaft. We have other MOS’s that are taking over now. We did our job. You kind of screwed the pooch at the beginning, but you did ok.”

Eve blushed under her suit, but the SGM never saw it.

“Pop a squat and run those diagnostics you love to run. We’ll hitch a ride to Valkyrie, do an AAR, shower, and get ready for wherever they send us next because if there is one constant in the Ranger Brigades, it is that there is never a shortage of stuff to do.

Eve thought a shower sounded pretty good, and her mind was concentrated on that as the Spyder’s ramp shut tight behind her and took off back toward the ships.

She was cut off from everything going on outside the shuttle when TACCOM was suddenly flooded with traffic and requests, so much so that the system went offline and had to reboot. STRATNET was also pinging off the hook as new contacts were recognized. Eve was oblivious to all of it as she rode in the quiet cargo bay.

This wasn’t over yet.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 121

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Argo, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 The battle was the easy part. Cleaning up after it was much more difficult. Ben had heard it described like this before. A few moments of sheer terror filled with hours of tedious boredom. He’d been prepared for the terror. That was what his training was geared towards, and being in command gave him a million other things to do in those precarious moments. Right now, he was very much not liking his job.

“Section 166, normal. No physical damage and only light irradiation. Only a few ppm, well below regulation levels.” LT Briggs was leading the damage control teams on a thorough and exhausting inspection of the ship. They were looking for any type of damage to Argo and compiling a damage report that he would have to sign off on and turn into the fleet when they returned.

Ben noted the assessment on the master report and the LT moved onto section 167. <Only a couple of hundred sections to go.> It hardly mattered that the pirates hadn’t scored a single hit on Argo. They still had to do this.

“Sergeant O’Neil on TACCOM for you, Sir.” SP2 Olvera reported dutifully.

“Patch him through.”

After securing Full Moon, Ben had ordered the marines to use their shuttle to make contact with and assess the damage to New Day. Since they were the likely target of the pirate’s attack, he wanted a thorough report on the damage they’d taken and whether or not it was natural or sabotage. He hoped it was natural. If it was sabotage then him and Cobalt Station had a lot of work to do. Pirates were making more and more inroads into this sector and it was Ben’s job to stop it. Not only did Cobalt Station pay the Fleet to do just that, but Ben felt a responsibility toward the small mining station. After all, he did kind of own it.

“Go ahead, Sergeant.”

“Sir, we’ve completed a preliminary scan of the vessel. It only has two crew members, the captain and a mechanic. Both were unharmed in the firefight, and only one is freaking out a little. As for the explosion that called for the original distress call it does look a little fishy. I’m no engineer, but I don’t think when something explodes for real it’s supposed to leave the stuff surrounding it relatively unharmed.”

<Damn.> Argo’s port call to the mining station just got a lot longer.

“Please sent my greeting to the captain and politely request that he accompanies you back to the Argo. I want to have a chat with him. Please tell him to forward his ship’s logs to me before you depart. I want to look it over before you arrive. Good work, Sergeant.”

“Thank you, Sir.” The link was cut.

Ben was left scratching his chin. He liked the SGT. All the marines had done a fantastic job of eliminating the threats with minimal injuries. Only a single marine required a short stay in their sick bay to recover from wounds obtained in the battle. Everyone was giving that marine a hard time about getting hurt, but as far as Ben knew it was all in good fun.

“Geoffrey.”

“Yes, Commander Gold.”

“I want you to take a look at the ship’s logs when they are downloaded to us. Please review for anything suspicious or altered.”

Ben received the logs thirty minutes later and got word that the shuttle would be arriving back at the gunboat in forty-five minutes. That gave him just enough time to prepare. There was no special room for questioning people on a gunboat. There just wasn’t enough space, so the question became where to talk. He wasn’t going to take the other captain anywhere near the bridge or any other sensitive area, which left infantry country. They had an open space for basic exercises and hand-to-hand training, so Ben had one of the maintenance spacers get a pair of chairs and a folding table set up. That would have to do.

“Shuttle arriving. Docking procedures initiating.” Geoffrey’s voice announced over the ship intercom.

Ben waited patiently next to the hatch until the light turned green and it slid open.

“Sir,” SGT O’Neil was still in his armor and looked massive next to the small man next to him. “May I introduce Captain Pickard of CMS New Day. Captain Pickard, this is Lieutenant Commander Gold, the commander of Argo.

“It is such an honor to meet you, Sir. The small captain took Ben’s large hand in both of his and shook. “Thank you, thank you so much for what you did for us.”

“No need, Captain. I was just doing my duty.” Ben couldn’t help but feel sorry for the smaller captain. The man looked pale, sickly, and in need of several good meals. “Can I get you something to eat or drink, Sir. Our mess is small, but our cook does what he can.”

“No thank you, Sir.” Pickard bowed his head. “You’ve done more than enough for me today.”

“That is what I wanted to talk to you about,” Ben ushered the other captain toward the table. “We are investigating the incident, and I wanted to get your take on it. You were right in the middle of it after all.”

“Yes, of course.” Pickard flushed as he took a seat. “I will do my best to answer your questions.”

“Thank you.” Ben set his PAD to record and made the proper legal statements required by Commonwealth maritime law. “How long have you been working for Cobalt?”

“Only a short time, Sir. I just got New Day outfitted and registered. This was going to be my first job in sector with her. I spent everything I had to get her up and running.” The captain’s voice cracked a bit.

“When did you first encounter the pirate vessel Full Moon?”

“On our way here. We stopped for fuel and supplies in System 1773.” They were in orbit with us and we teamed up for the trip here. I thought safety in numbers would be a good thing.”

“Did they ever come onboard?” Ben checked the data on the ship’s logs to see if the answers matched the ship’s history. So far so good, and he’d double check that data with records from System 1773.

“I don’t think so, but my mechanic and I did leave the ship to go down to the planet quickly. We weren’t gone more than an hour, but I guess they could have gotten on board.” The man looked troubled as he tried to remember events from a few days ago.

A message popped up in his PAD addressed from Geoffrey. It stated that there was some corrupted data from around the time New Day was in System 1773. It supported Pickard’s story.

“What occurred once you left System 1773?”

“It was business as usual.” Pickard shrugged. “We arrived at Cobalt Station, signed in, reviewed our contract, and set out for the asteroid field.”

“It says here you stayed on station for six hours. Why so long? A standard contract review can’t have taken that long with the administrators.” Ben had seen whole companies get bought out in a shorter timeframe.

“Well…um…” Pickard stammered and blushed. “My mechanic has needs, Sir.” He finally revealed. “Needs of the flesh and of the bottle. It’s not my place to judge, but I don’t hold the same tastes as he does. But he’s a great mechanic,” Pickard added hastily. “It’s tough to find good workers for the low wages the mining companies pay. If he needs to take a few hours to blow off steam then who am I to judge? As long as he comes to work sober I let him do what he wants.”

Geoffrey couldn’t confirm that story without connecting to Cobalt’s network, and they needed to be closer to do that reliably.

<We are going there anyway.> Ben sighed and gave the nervous-looking captain a smile.

“You’ve been through a lot today, Captain. I don’t want to take up any more of your time. We will return you to your vessel. You are welcome to follow us back to Cobalt Station, and I am sure the company has paperwork that you need to fill out.”

“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir. But if I may,” Pickard looked hesitant, but Ben was beginning to think that was the man’s natural state, “could you give us a tow back to the station. With our damage I’d rather not push the old girl.”

“I am sorry, Captain.” Ben shook his head. “Regulation dictates that I cannot assist in that manner.” Ben felt sorry at the dejected look on Pickard’s face. “But,” he added, “I will send a message ahead for the station to send a tug your way.”

“Thank you, Sir. That will help a lot.”

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Captain. I wish it was under better circumstances. Sergeant.” Ben motioned for SGT O’Neil to transport the Captain back to his ship and retrieve the marines there.

That would take another hour and a half, which gave them time to finish up the inventory.

“Sir, sections 167 through 221 are all normal. Moving to section 222.” LT Briggs brought him back up to date on her progress.

“Continue,” he replied, and got to work on the paperwork.

 

Noah Grisham

Location: CWS Argo, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Noah had to work very hard to conceal the disdain that threatened to leak onto his face at any moment. His mark, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold was sitting right in front of him and there wasn’t a single thing he could do. On top of that, the LCDR was like every other pompous asshole the pirate captain had ever met. He had blue specks in his eyes, golden hair, an enhanced physique, and everything else in this universe that the rich could afford while people like Noah had to squabble for scraps.

Benjamin Gold was half the reason Noah did what he did. He took from the rich, but he didn’t give to the poor. He kept that shit for himself. The worst part about all of this was that he could feel millions of dollars slipping through his fingers. Full Moon hadn’t even dented the gunboat’s hull.

<If that fucking moron had waited a few more minutes I would be the person on the other side of the table right now, and I wouldn’t be so kind.> Benjamin seemed to be under the impression that Noah and Able were victims in this whole incident. A point of view he had no problem in supporting.

The problem was that too much digging into the story would unravel it. New Day and Full Moon hadn’t only met in System 1773. They’d arrived together. That was going to create more questions. Questions that pointed in a bad direction.

<I’ve got to fix this and fix it fast.>

The one good thing about the chat was that Noah was able to get a decent layout of this part of the ship. It looked like the place where the marines hung out, which made sense if someone was going to board through the airlock then it was smart to have them funnel right into the heart of the ship’s defenders. Noah also confirmed they had between five and ten marines, and since he wasn’t a moron like the Full Moon’s now deceased captain, he was betting on the higher number.

<If I can get enough people together then we can take this tin can.>

The problem was getting enough people out here without being detected, getting them armed and coordinated, and then having them storm the gunboat when it was weakest.

<I’ve got to hit it when it’s docked at the station.> There was no other way unless he hired a flotilla of pirates to try and take down the gunboat in action.

That would just lead to the same problem. Pirates didn’t play well together. They’d fight among themselves before, after, and maybe even during the attempt to kidnap Commander Gold. There was no way Noah could trust them to get the task done, and there was no way to get it done with just him and Able.

<That’s why this is a fifty-million-dollar job.>

Gold dismissed him after their short conversation and exiled him back to his ship with the watchful marine. He couldn’t do anything now. He needed to bide his time and make some calls. Able had made a few less than reputable contacts on the station. They might be able to help.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 15

When Daisy thought “clandestine meeting with a secret agent” this wasn’t what came to mind. Orlando at its core was a tourist and college town. With Disney World a stone’s throw away, along with three big schools, it was a city that never really slept. The bars were open late to grab the college kids and that meant that restaurants had to be open late too.

The address Night had told Daisy to meet her at was a pretty nice restaurant. Nice enough that the hostess gave Daisy a judgmental look when she walked in wearing athletic clothes. She wanted to be loose, comfortable, and ready to throw down if need be. She didn’t give a shit if she met the dress code.

“I’m meeting someone.” Was all she could tell the hostess, which didn’t help with the judgmental looks.

“Ms. Meyers?” The hostess asked hesitantly after a second. Daisy nodded, and the young woman’s demeanor completely changed. “Welcome!” Her face brightened to what must earn her nice fat tips from the men at this fancy establishment. “I’ve got you in a private room in the back. Please follow me.”

Daisy didn’t let her confusion show as the hostess grabbed two menus and led the way to the back. The private room had two booths and a big square table in the center. It could easily fit thirty people for an anniversary or birthday party, but with just one person it felt like a waste. The hostess placed the menu at one of the booths and Daisy took a seat.

“Your server will be right with you, Ms. Meyers.”

Daisy didn’t reply. Her mind was busy studying the room. There were only two entrances – which meant two exits. One was the way she’d entered and the other was a door back to the kitchen. It made sense to have a route straight to the food if you were serving a party. If shit went sideways, that was the way she was getting out of here, and she bet that was how Night was going to enter. Covert agents didn’t tend to enter through the front door.

She also took note of the shadows in the room. Night’s power had to do with darkness, so it only made sense to keep an eye on that. Daisy would bet her entire yearly salary that Night was listening in right now.

Five minutes turned into ten and then fifteen as Daisy waited patiently. A cute-as-a-button waitress came to take Daisy’s order but all she got was a water. She’d just eaten and had no plans to have a second dinner.

“Are you sure you don’t at least want an appetizer, Ma’am.” The waitress pushed, turning up the charm in the hopes of actually making some money tonight.

“I’m fine thank you.” Daisy replied, her eyes still glued on the entrances.

The waitress left again and the clock ticked on as Daisy waited. After nearly half an hour, Daisy started to wonder if this was some type of setup. Her kinetic abilities were activated, so she gathered two orbs of electricity beneath the table in case she was ambushed. They would have the combined effect of a flash strong enough to temporarily blind the enemy while still knocking them on their ass. That would give her the time she needed to finish them or run. She was on good terms with the DVA since the attack on the city and she didn’t want to ruin all the goodwill just yet.

“Can I…”

“I’m fine. Please just…” Daisy stopped mid retort as she noted the difference between the new voice and the voice of the waitress.

She didn’t jump up and get into a fighting stance because that would make her look bad. She did dial up the power on the orbs if the new arrival tried anything. The new woman taking a seat across from Daisy looked to be in her fifties or sixties, which matched how old Night would be. Her raven black hair had a couple of silver strands in it, which highlighted the cold glint in her eye and a face that didn’t give anything away. Her features were distinctly Asian, and her outfit was a mixture of her traditional culture and modern American. It looked expensive too, way more expensive then something Daisy could buy on her teaching salary.

She also wasn’t alone. Two big, bulky men covered in tattoos had entered with her. Each took up a position near the two entrances. Anyone who wanted to enter the room would have to go through them first, and they had bulges in their blazers that said anyone trying to force their way in would lead to something ugly.

Night studied Daisy in the few seconds the seasoned Hero took in her new surroundings. “You really don’t remember me.”

Daisy was sure she imagined it, but she thought she heard a hint of sadness in the tone.

“Mastermind really did a number on you.” That sadness was gone and replaced by a shake of the head. “I still don’t understand why you wanted to forget all that we did. The secrets that we know are one of a kind.”

“A secret is best if its only kept by one person. The more people that know, the dicier it gets, and in my experience, that usually ends up with people missing body parts.” That got Daisy a small smile from her old acquaintance.

“That’s a conversation for another day. It is not why I’m here.” The neutral expression snapped back into place. “I’m here because your actions are hurting my organization. It is costing me considerable capital to stay one step ahead of a consortium of our old nemeses. They are motivated, well-funded, and for some reason have detailed accounts of our actions since leaving Uncle Sam’s service. My question to you is: who the fuck did you piss off and how do we make them happy again?”

“That’s a long list of people. Take your pick.” Daisy smirked.

Night didn’t think that was funny. “It would have been someone recent. A person doesn’t just drop considerable resources to track down a retired elite team just for kicks. There has to be a catalyst event. Something you did to piss someone off.”

“I’ve been pretty low key recently. Other than the attack on the city I’ve only run into a few petty criminals. If you’re saying someone is paying big money for these assholes to hunt us down then there is no way it’s them.”

“You were here during the attack?” Night changed her line of questioning. “Did you kill someone you weren’t supposed to? Or did you not kill someone you should have? Blood feuds tend to be the best fuel for this type of revenge.

“Well I tried to kill…” Daisy’s thoughts came to a grinding halt. “Oh shit.”

“Who did you try to kill?” Night leaned forward, excitement finally creeping into her stoic features.

“Seif al-Din and I fought. I busted him up a bit, but he kicked my ass pretty good. Then he basically stated he wanted to put a baby in me to make a race of superior Supers. I told him to fuck off, and that’s about where I lost consciousness.”

“His organization would have the resources to connect with, hire, and finance the people hunting us. He is our most likely candidate.” Night sat back with a pensive look on her face.

“So, al-Din is trying to kill me…again.” Daisy rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. “Just great.”

“Maybe not.” Night’s gaze shifted and she looked like she was seeing through Daisy. It only lasted a few seconds before her eyes snapped back to the present.

“You said his plan is on a master Super race with your reaping and his regenerative properties. That’s something that wouldn’t just happen with a one-time romp in the sack. To get a child with both the parents’ abilities would take serious scientific interference.” Night scratched her chin. “How a Super gets which power is still unknown. Some children inherit their parents’ ability, an aspect of it, or they get something totally new. Neither of your parents had anything close to your reaping ability, so there is no guarantee that a coupling of you and al-Din would result in what he wants without large scale intervention.”

“I’d need an intervention if I ever got together with that psycho.” Daisy mumbled.

“What that means is that al-Din isn’t trying to kill you. He’s trying to capture you.”

“He wants to make me his baby making, experimental sex slave! Fuck that!” The disgust on Daisy’s face actually made Night chuckle. It was a weird sound.

“It makes sense. He’s gathering intelligence on you by finding your old colleagues, interrogating them, and then eliminating them. It also takes out your potential allies, and is probably a bonus for the people chasing you. Our team injured them or their cause in one way or another over the years. Sometimes the best payment for a mercenary team is sweet revenge.”

“You sound like you know a bit about that.” Daisy was picking up a few things from the way Night spoke.

Night didn’t reply. She just smiled. A look that made her previously neutral expression look downright dangerous.

<What the hell does she do now?> She made a mental note to ask Mastermind when she went back down to the HCP.

“This has been very enlightening.” Unexpectedly, Night got to her feet. “We should talk again in the future.” She handed Daisy a midnight-black business card. On the back was a number in red and nothing else. “Call if you wish.”

She moved toward the door to the kitchen and her guards closed ranks around her.

“What the fuck? Wait!” Daisy got up to follow, but when she pushed through the door they were gone.

“Fucking teleporters.” She mumbled when a quick search showed they had vanished into thin air.

When she went back to the room the waitress was standing there looking a little pissed. She thought Daisy had dined and dashed without actually dining. Daisy threw a twenty on the table for her and left. She waited until she was out of the building until she pulled out her cell phone and dialed a number. It went to voicemail which was expected. Mastermind was closing in on a hundred and it was way past his bedtime.

“You won’t believe what just happened. Call me.” She left a short message and walked to her car, staying alert as she did.

Apparently, people were looking to kill her friends and kidnap her. If she was being honest with herself, it wasn’t the most nefarious thing people had planned for her throughout her career. As far as timing went it sucked ass. Things were finally getting good with her life, and now someone wanted to take that all away again.

<Typical.> She was used to it by now so it didn’t take long for her to go from upset to ready to kick ass to keep that from happening. <The best defense is a good offense.> She’d also been around long enough to know she couldn’t sit on her ass and wait for the enemy to show up.

She needed to take the fight to them, screw up their plans, and take care of the problem. Currently, that was a bit of a problem, but she might be able to fix that. She made another call.

“Hello.” Despite the early hour John sounded like he’d been awake for hours. Being a Hero on call for decades developed certain habits.

“It’s Daisy.”

John was silent as he waited for the other shoe to drop.

“We need to talk about my Hero certification.”

 

***

 

Lilly was frustrated; physically, emotionally, and sexually. She’d just busted out of prison only to end up in another one. This one was on a tropical island with just about every amenity you could ever desire, but it was still a prison. She was constantly being told what to do and what not to do by Armsman. Deep down she knew he was doing it for her own good, but that didn’t hold much weight in her mind. Not being able to do something because “I told you so” had gotten old when she was five.

<No one tells a teleporter to stay put.>

Then there was Mika. The little technopath was censoring the data she was getting.  He still had a lot of the same assets in place from when he’d been running surveillance last spring, so he was still able to get tons of data on Seth and the old crew. He just wasn’t sharing all the juicy bits.

Lilly grumbled to herself as she got into the prone firing position. She got comfortable and squeezed the rifle into her shoulder. It was a foreign feeling after going so long without shooting. The rifle was already grouped and zeroed so all she had to do was get it on target. She picked one close as a confidence boost.

<One hundred yards.> The recoil of the rifle slammed into her shoulder and she saw a hole appear in the shoulder area.

She moved to two hundred, then three hundred, and only missed when she got to four hundred. It was ok if she was rusty. She wasn’t great with the long shots, and she’d only killed that mafioso bonehead from five hundred yards. She wasn’t that off her game.

<But I am.> She felt the frustration still there and simmering.

Armsman was off to the mainland running some sort of errand. Mika was in his fortress of geekitude doing god only knew what. All of that left Lilly to her own devices, and since she was never really one to pass up an opportunity she seized the moment.

A flash of comforting darkness appeared in the tropical paradise and when it dissipated she was gone. She reappeared in a dank and dusty bunker that really needed to be aired out.

“Ahhhh,” Lilly breathed it in and nearly choked.

Despite all the searches and seizures the DVA had done with her assets, they still hadn’t found her weapons arsenal. This place was locked up tighter than a tick’s ass.

<Just a few things to hold me over.> She mused as she searched the place for what she wanted.

The weapons she’d set aside for the Orlando operation were still on the table all these months later. The only thing missing was the electromagnetic rifle. The DVA had confiscated that bad boy. There were still plenty of other weapons for her to choose from, but she kept it light. She wasn’t going to lay siege to a city again. She grabbed a dainty .22 pistol. It wouldn’t do a whole lot of damage, but it would create a small distraction if she needed to make a quick exit. She also picked up a couple of knives and hid them in a few easy to reach places on her body. That was all she needed for today. She stopped by the entrance and grabbed a baseball cap and some big aviator glasses. They were enough to disguise her identity from a stranger. If people took a closer look, then that’s what the guns and knives were for.

As a spur of the moment decision she grabbed a wig and tucked her blond hair into it. Eventually, she’d need to get back to her natural brunette color, but for today she was going to be a red head. A look in the mirror told her she only vaguely resembled the notorious Supervillain Wraith.

Another explosion of blackness took her to one of her lesser known teleportation points in the city of Orlando. It was by the coffee place Sprout, and she’d only used it to send a raging bitch to Africa that one time.

<I wonder what happened to her?> she mused. <Probably eaten by lions.> She smiled and started walking.

The problem was that she didn’t know where any of her old friends were. That was the stuff Mika censored. Not that they would call her a friend anymore.  She couldn’t go back to Townhouse 117. Not only because they didn’t live there anymore, but also because the DVA definitely had eyes on the place. That was the reason she didn’t jump into her usual alley down the street. She was pretty sure Hunter had tracked her through that one.

So she started walking. The weather was better than the island. It wasn’t sweltering heat, and with the college in full swing she was easily able to blend in with the rest of the student population. When a girl wasn’t looking, Lilly swiped her backpack to complete the collegiate image. She made sure to double check and ensure the girl’s cell phone wasn’t in her bag. She wasn’t going to lead Heroes to her again through a technological lapse in judgment.

As she walked memories started to creep to the surface. <We kissed over there. Held hands as we walked this path, and I’m pretty sure we fucked under that tree right there.> After so long in confinement, seeing these old things was hitting her harder than she thought. <This was a bad idea.>

She headed away from the school with no real destination in mind. She just couldn’t be around that place right now. She knew how she was when she got too emotional. She’d probably act out and start an active shooter incident if someone looked at her sideways, and that wouldn’t be good for her cover.

She walked for another hour before giving up on trying to figure out where everyone lived now. Instead, she aimlessly wandered with the masses away from the school. It would take her too long to get to the city, but she could still get away from West. She followed the shores of the lake West sat next to and finally sat down on one of the beaches the school had built.

She felt exhausted from the trip down memory lane, and plopped down into the sandy goodness.

<What do I really want?> She finally asked herself. <Yeah, I want to see him again, but what does that really mean. Do I want one final trip to pound town? Do I want to pick things up where they left off? Do I want to end it on my terms? What the hell is wrong with me?> She finally cut the thought process off before she became the whiner she detested.

She still remembered their last conversation. She remembered when that asshat Mr. Morningstar had manipulated him into that room. She remembered how the old bastard had hurt him and her with the big reveal. She remembered how he’d done it with a straight face and a smile. She knew he thought he was doing Seth a favor by showing off their capture of her, but all he’d done was sign his own death warrant. The old man was right up there on the list next to Hunter for people she needed to kill.

<Stop pussyfooting around this and just do something.> She forced herself to look past their last talk. She pulled out a disposable cell from her pocket and dialed a number from memory.

“Hello.”

Seth’s voice was exactly how she remembered it, and it made her freeze. The tortured look on his face blazed in her mind.

“Hello?” He asked again.

When she didn’t answer he hung up.

<Great.> She released the death grip she had on the phone and thought about burying her head in the sand. <Come on Lilly. You’re better than this.>

She dialed the number again.

“Hello.”

“H…” was as far as she got this time.

“What? You’re breaking up.”

“Hi.” She sounded like she was being strangled.

“Who is this? I don’t recognize the number.”

“It’s…”

<Wow. Great job me. I’ve become a complete moron around him.>

“Stop calling this number or I’m calling the cops.”

“But…”

“Is this you Izzy?”

The question felt like he took a hot branding iron to her heart.

“No.” That word came out loud, clear, and strong before she hit the end button.

Lilly knew what she needed to do now. The conversation had been a wakeup call for her. She needed to find out more about who this Izzy was. She needed to gather intelligence. She needed to know the girl’s life better than her own, so when the perfect moment came she could end that life and remove the threat.

Because Izzy was a threat.

The pain Lilly felt when Seth said Izzy’s name was all the proof she needed. She still loved him, and she needed to end every other bitch that even thought about getting close to him.

A standard ringtone interrupted her murderous thoughts. She looked down at the phone, saw Seth’s number, and immediately answered it.

“Hello?”

<Great. Now I’m able to talk.>

“Liz?”

She hung up immediately, threw the phone into the water, and teleported away in a blast of darkness. She put half a dozen jumps, and multiple continents between her and that phone call so that no Heroes could follow her.

<Stupid…stupid…stupid…> She’d panicked. <I need to get my shit together.>

She was still brainstorming ways to do that when she walked back into Armsman’s underground home far far away from Orlando. Her uncle as back and by the look on his face she could tell he knew exactly where she’d been.

He didn’t have to say anything. All he had to do was stare at her. The look on his face screamed STUPID GIRL, but she just shrugged it off and headed for Mika.

“How bad?”

“The DVA is shitting a chicken and crawling all over every place you’ve ever been.” He replied. He kept his eyes on the screens. His way of saying he was pissed too. “You probably also screwed over Seth Abney. The DVA picked him up right after your call. You had to have known they were monitoring his cell?”

“Goodnight, Mika.” She wasn’t in the mood to discuss this.

She’d try to see the guy that she loved, and instead she’d failed to say more than a few complete words to him. To make matters worse, she’d alerted the DVA to her continued interest in the area. If her father was conscious he would have kicked her ass for being so stupid.

Suddenly, her prison sentence in a tropical paradise wasn’t looking so bad.

<Whatever.> She thought rebelliously as she locked the door to her room and collapsed on her bed. <I’ll do whatever the fuck I want to.>

Previous

I’m on TDY from Hell – Scent of the Kill

Light danced in the darkness. Blue, white, and amber flashed across window panes and drowned out the streetlights. Beneath them a mother cried and a father tried to make sense of the world’s madness. The police went door to door questioning neighbors. Their questions were always the same.

“Did he have any enemies? Anyone who wanted to hurt him?”

“Did he have problems at school?”

“Did he do drugs?”

“Did you know about the stuff in his room?” The last question was because of what they’d found.

The kid was into some weird shit, and that would become a focal point in the investigation. A few of the cops outside the house even whispered about this being a suicide.

Ava hovered above it all, her wings gently flapping and creating no breeze. Her insubstantial form took in everything and she wept quietly to herself. The worst part was watching the mother try to answer the detective’s questions about her dead son.

“No, Kyle didn’t have any enemies. He didn’t have many friends but I don’t know anyone who wanted to hurt him.”

“Kyle got straight A’s! The teachers said he wasn’t challenged enough, but he didn’t have academic or discipline problems.”

“No! Kyle didn’t do drugs! He barely took aspirin when he had a headache. He said it affected his ability to feel the world around him.”

“The stuff in his room,” she hesitated, “he was into fantasy: angels, demons, the undead, zombies, vampires all that stuff that kids like now-a-days. He might have taken it a step further. He read books dealing with the occult more than fantasy, but he wasn’t stupid. He didn’t do something that got himself killed.”

Ava couldn’t listen to it anymore. She floated through the roof, down through the floorboards, and into the crime scene. It looked like someone had put Kyle, aka the Dark Mage of Charlotte, through a wood chipper. Blood splattered everything, bits of bone and tissue were discarded around the room the way a high schooler would discard used clothes.

Tapping into her link to the Divine, Ava looked deeper. She looked closer. The surface things vanished. Everything the police would be looking at as evidence was blotted away as she looked at what the æther said. Aether never lied.

There were traces. Nothing more than specks, and they were faint. She bent low to examine them. There was mortal magic in the air. It clung to the æther in a symbiotic relationship. She smelled the fragrance of the earth, the salt from the sea, the freshness of the wind on an open plain. There was nothing wrong with that, but there was an undercurrent to it. It was a sharp scent that made her recoil.

She smelled sulfur. She smelled sin. She smelled… <Wet dog?>

Her mind jumped to a few possibilities, but she didn’t want to jump to any conclusions. It was dangerous to make assumptions in her line of work.

<It can’t be. I haven’t seen one in a century.> Despite trying to be unbiased her mind kept gravitating to one possibility.

If she was being honest with herself it was more likely that Kyle had summoned something that had killed him. <He was a necromancer.> There were a whole manner of undead things that could have done this too him.

“Ma’am.” Feet, a waist, and then Lucas’ head descended through the ceiling.

He didn’t give the grizzly crime scene a second glance. They’d all seen worse in the service of the Divine. <But that was war. He was a child.>

“Yes.” She pulled herself together and faced the Guardian.

“Word from the border, Ma’am.” He braced to attention. “A werewolf pack’s extermination is confirmed. The mortal magician fulfilled a contract tonight. A dwarf charged with monitoring the Nature Preserve confirmed it.”

<That makes things more difficult.> There was too much coincidence in a new face showing up and then a member of the magical community being slaughtered. She’d need to confirm the alibi herself, but it seemed like the newcomer was off the hook.

“Could the werewolves have done this?” Lucas had already moved on to the next likely suspects.

“Possibly.” Ava would need someone with more experience in these things to make sure. “Get the specialist.”

The “specialist” was easy to track down. He’d followed a pretty rigid schedule for the last two decades. It was the middle of the week, so that meant he would be getting done with his weekday drink at a local bar before heading to one of his kind’s more specialized watering holes.

She floated over the alleyway for ten minutes – out of sight and out of mind – until he exited the backdoor. He never exited a building the way he’d entered, but his unpredictability ended there.

“Cameron.” Divine light flooded the alley and the Soulless screamed.

The light burned his flesh and scorched the eyes in his socket. He scrambled backwards blind and steaming to find cover behind a nearby dumpster.

“Ah! Fuckin’ hell, Ava!” He had a thick Cockney accent to go with his fiend of the night good looks. “Ya could have just said hello. No need for the Divine wrath.”

“Your history of cooperation is spotty at best.” She smiled as her light dimmed and he peeked out from behind the trash bin.

“By cooperation you mean being a traitor to my kind.” He snarled, but it was because of the pain of his reknitting flesh and reforming eyes.

“If your kind has one talent it would be survival. You are just doing what you’re good at, Cameron.” She landed lightly a couple of feet from him and motioned for him to come out.

He didn’t budge.

“I won’t hurt you, you have my word.” She sighed.

Angels couldn’t lie. They kept their word, and that was enough to flush him out.

“What do you want?” He kept his eyes averted. Not out of respect, but to avoid getting them boiled again.

“I need you to take a look at something.” She waved her hand and the æther in the hallway shifted.

The garbage, trash bin, and weather-stained brick of the buildings was still there but it sunk a little deeper into the fabric of reality. It was replaced by an identical version of the crime scene of the Dark Mages’ death; accurate down to the last drop of blood.

Cameron’s breath caught as he surveyed the new scene. The amount of power it took to essentially conjure a pocket reality was immense, and Ava did it without breaking a sweat. Such was the power of a Dominion.

“What am I looking for?” he audibly gulped as Ava stepped forward to the reconstructed corpse.

“In your estimation, what did this?” she kept it vague, not wanted to push his opinion in any direction.

Cameron walked up to the ætherial corpse and stared at it. “Would have been better if you didn’t barbeque my eyes.” He grumbled as he blinked furiously to get his eyes to heal faster.

He got back up and judged it from a different angle – then another. He scratched his head and took a deep whiff of the scene. Ava had recreated everything about the scene including the scent.

“And,” she prompted him after several minutes.

“Honestly,” he looked nervous as he looked over his shoulder at the angel. “I don’t know.” He braced like she was going to hit him with another burst of light.

“What makes you say that?” She took a different approach.

“I don’t recognize the bite marks.” He hurriedly explained. “It’s too small to be a werewolf. It’s possible it could be some shifter, but they can be any number of things so it’s hard to tell. It’s not my kind, we just puncture, and I’m not versed in the variety of Fae beasts that sometimes hunt in our realm. So, I just don’t know.”

The Soulless hadn’t fully answered her question, but he gave her enough to go on.

“Thank you, Cameron.” She unfurled her wings and floated into the air. “I will turn a blind eye to any minor infractions you commit over the next seven days.”

“Ava.” He bowed, unable to hide the raucous grin on his face. “I’ll behave.”

“Be sure that you do.” She turned insubstantial, vanished from sight, and shot across the sky faster than anything man could make.

She aimed south east and let her mind wander as she flew. She beat her wings faster to gain speed and reach her destination quicker. Time was of the essence.

<It has to be.> She didn’t want it to be, but it was hard to ignore the facts. <He’ll know.>

She left the equivalent of and ætherial skid mark across the sky above Charleston as her target intercepted her.

“Ava, back so soon?” Emmanuel, Charleston’s Dominion, gloated as he stopped in her path.

“I need you to take a look at something.” She didn’t wait for him to acknowledge before dropping to the ground and recreating the scene of the crime. “What do you think?”

All haughtiness disappeared from Emmanuel’s face as he surveyed the carnage.

“Hellhound.” He confirmed her own suspicions. “Do you know what this means?”

“Yes.” The weight of her increased responsibilities settled on her shoulders. “Either the Dux operating in your city has accumulated enough power to expand, or I’ve got a new Dux in town.”

“We should pass this up the chain to Uriel.” Ava had been against the course of action before, but now she suggested it.

“Yes.” Emmanuel was deep in thought now. He didn’t like this any more than she did.

Two Duxes in such close proximity was bad for the Divine and terrible for the mortals under their care. They needed to mount an effective response immediately.

<But first I need to figure out who they are.> She had contacts she could leverage and favors she could call in.

She’d be doing all of those before the end of the night.

 

***

 

Vicky sat in her office doing taxes of all things. She’d learned long ago not to skimp out on giving the government their due. She beaten death, but taxes were something she didn’t dare try to avoid.

A knock on her door pulled her out of her calculation of deductions.  “Yes, Elisa.”

Her assistant opened the door and stepped aside. “Cameron requests an audience.”

Vicky didn’t particularly like the British transplant to her coven, but the man had a way of getting bits of information that could prove valuable in the right hands.

“Send him in.” She sat back and closed the laptop she was working on.

Cameron stepped in looking a little worse from wear. His skin was still a fresh pink instead of the lifeless white of the Soulless, which meant he’d recently been severely burned. It was a common misconception that vampires could be killed by burning them, but that only worked during the day, and if it was tried at night it was best to remove their head or stake them to the ground so they couldn’t run away.

Whoever had tried to deep fry Cameron hadn’t been trying hard enough.

“Cameron, you look crispy.” She smiled, showing fangs as the man entered.

“Courtesy of our local Dominion.”

That wiped away any semblance of a good mood she’d been fostering. Hunters were one thing but fucking angels was an entirely different ball game.

“I just want to give you a heads up that they’re looking into the Dark Mage’s murder. She had me look over the scene. The kid was torn to pieces by something I haven’t seen before.”

Vicky hid her expression well enough that Cameron didn’t pick up on anything. He might not know what did it, but she did. She’d seen the ugly mutt ushered into creation only a few days ago.

“Thank you, Cameron. I will pass on this bit of intelligence, “she smiled. “Have a drink, on the house.”

The Brit’s face lit up and he exited with a bow. The minute he was gone she called for Alfred and had him bring the car around. Taxes would have to wait. They were in much deeper shit than anything the US Government could do to them.

Previous

Two Worlds – Chapter 120

Eve Berg

Location: Alcubierre Bubble, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 DIAGNOSTIC COMPLETE

00 ERROR CODES

Eve closed out the screen on her LACS HUD and toggled to the weapons menu, selected the 250mm spine-mounted artillery tube and initiated another diagnostic. Idle hands were not a good thing for a soldier, especially a soldier on their way into battle. Eve needed to be doing something, and since she was forced to sit around she might as well triple check that all of her gear was good to go.

CWS Valkyrie was hurtling through space faster than the speed of light on a course for the besieged planet of Rogue Island. She was one of twenty-two other battleships, two assault carriers, eight battlecruisers, and nineteen destroyers hastily consolidated into a task force with the mission to retake the planet.

After a brief reconnaissance that Eve wasn’t even around for, orders came down to the Commonwealth units in Syracuse to dispatch the reconnaissance task forces that had originally been patrolling the porous border with the Eastern Block. Third Fleet would remain in Syracuse and serve as a quick reaction force, but the data gathered during the recon of Rogue Island showed that the task force should be able to handle it without the fleet.

They were going into the system with limited intelligence, knowing there was a Blockie fleet in the area, and not even sure if the two battalions under siege at the PDC were still breathing.

<We’ve got to try.> Eve wasn’t sure if every other soldier in the task force believed they’d find those two thousand soldiers still alive, but they were all in agreement that if they were the one’s neck deep in shit’s creek then they hoped some other grunts would be willing to risk their asses to pull them out.

There were over twenty-five thousand grunts about to do just that.

“I can see you fidgeting in there, Berg. Relax and enjoy the ride.” SGM Queen contacted her through TACCOM so the rest of the Rangers couldn’t hear.

Valkyrie was carrying six of the special operatives – a short squad – including Eve and the SGM. They were in an enclosed section of infantry country known as SOCOM territory. They had their own briefing room, quarters, and separate armory for their better equipment. To make matters even more interesting, there was four Recon Marines sharing the space as well.

Just like with the Fleet and Infantry, there was a healthy rivalry between the different R&S units. Recon bragged that they were more elite than the Rangers, and Rangers told Recon to shove it where the sun didn’t shine. Recon thought they were better because there were fewer of them – thus being more elite. They also did more solo drops than the Ranger Brigades and tended to work in smaller groupings. Sometimes just in teams of two scouting enemy positions. On the contrary, the Rangers thought they were better because they were the true tip of the spear. They saw more frontline action, they were the ones that turned the tides of battles, and while the information Recon might discover was valuable, the Rangers were what turned lines of data into measurable results.

There had been a balance of power before Eve and the SGM arrived, now it had swung decisively in the Rangers’ favor, which was probably why the four seasoned Rangers weren’t ragging on Eve too much. That and she spent most of her time with a SGM.

“Transition in two minutes …Transition in two minutes.” The message repeated over TACCOM.

“Ok ladies, sound off if you’re good to go.” Their leader, a sturdy looking SGT, walked down the aisle. He’d tried to give command to the SGM, but SGM Queen made it clear this wasn’t his show. He was just along for the ride.

“Unless you fuck up.” The SGM made that clear. “Then I’ll save everyone’s ass before kicking yours.”

“Good to go.” Eve didn’t hesitate. Every diagnostic she’d run had come back green.

“After transition we head to the Spyders. We’re going to be hitching a ride with the rest of the grunts. Our objective is this block of New Providence. We are going to be the first boots on the ground in this grid square. We will secure the landing zone for the rest of Valkyrie’s three-company detachment and then push toward the PDC. An unknown number of Blockie regulars are waiting there for us. We will proceed to end their miserable existence before getting our troopers out. Hopefully by then the brass will have made the call on what to do next. We’ll either be settling in for garrison ops, or possibly putting down a little rebellion until we are relieved or bug out. Be prepared for either.”

They’d gone over the plan multiple times in transit, but repetition was what made information sink in. She could practically see the holo-map of their LZ in her mind’s-eye and knew her portion of the op down to the letter.

Unconsciously, she started running a diagnostic on her Buss and double checking the ammo count for the tenth time.

“Transition in three…two…one…” A wave of uneasiness passed through Eve as they dropped out of their Alcubierre Bubble and back into normal space.

She couldn’t see anything that was happening, but she’d been briefed. The task force was coming out of Alcubierre at different accelerations to form a predetermined formation. The destroyers and battlecruisers transitioned at a higher rate of speed. The destroyers were dispersing in a wedge tens of millions of kilometers long. Their job was to spot any danger before the task force got sucked in. The battlecruisers transition faster than the battleships but slower than the destroyers. They were moving to the flanks and putting space between themselves and the main battleship force. If anything tried to sneak up on them from the side the battlecruisers would see them coming. At the center of the screening elements were the twenty-two battleships and their nearly seven thousand marines. They got into their own formation to protect the most vital ships in the fleet. The two assault carriers sat at the center of it all with their eighteen thousand marines, multiple fighter wings, and task force commander.

When they hit orbit, half of those marines would be ferried down to the planet along with most of the battleships’ contingents. The rear admiral in charge of all of this clearly thought that a brigade and a half of troops wasn’t overkill. In Eve’s eyes, that meant they were in for a fight.

“Let’s go, Rangers. To the Spyders!”

Eve and the five other suits of armor were up and on the move.

“I guess you Recon guys can come too.” That got some laugher and grumbling depending on what tab you had.

There was a lot of commotion in the corridors as the ten SOCOM soldiers moved toward their designated Spyder. Valkyrie’s crew of nearly three thousand was at battlestations while their three hundred marines were all streaming toward the Spyders. The ship had six, just enough for everyone to make it down in one flight. MPs helped direct traffic when it got too congested, but that wasn’t a problem for the Rangers. In armor, they were closing in on three meters tall in some cases and people had a tendency to get out of the way of a moving war machine.

Eve passed an HI trooper who looked to be the only other fully-armored infantryman on the ship. She couldn’t help but think of Coop. He’d be done with HI school now, and off in some corner of the universe kicking ass and taking names.

<And trying to sweet talk anything with two legs and tits.> She laughed to herself. She doubted Coop had changed one bit.

“Berg, get your head in the game.” SGM Queen barked when she hesitated to strap into the combat harness.

“Yes, Sergeant Major.” She situated herself and started the long waiting game.

It would be hours until they got close enough to launch the Spyders, but that didn’t stop the powers that be from stuffing all their infantry into the birds and making them sit it out without any idea of what was going on around them.

Eve was better off than most. Her suit offered other options that the regular grunts didn’t have. She didn’t take advantage of any of them. Instead, she started running diagnostics again.

<Better safe than sorry…or dead.>

 

***

 

Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham

Location: JB Sullivan, Rogue Island, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Gwen stumbled and tried to shake off the vertigo that gripped her body. She only partially succeeded, and then was immediately knocked on her ass when as explosion rocked the world only a few meters away. The explosion picked her up and flung her away. Her systems went haywire and she tried to reorient.

“They’ve got me zeroed!” she shouted over TACCOM. “Will someone please find and kill that son-of-a-bitch!”

All she got back was crackling static.

<Fuck!> She started to get up but pain lanced through her leg.

She didn’t even notice the medical codes flashing on her HUD or the suit breach until then. Her hands immediately went to one of the accessible hatches to grab a tube. The hand moved with a mind of its own and secured the tube even while Gwen tried to get through the initial shock of her injury. The hand found the section of armor where the explosion had torn off the Dragonscales and punctured the duro-steel. Once she assessed the damage she squeezed and black goo sloshed out of the tube and onto the injured section. The black substance full of nanites adhered to the opening and filled the breech before hardening. It wouldn’t take a direct hit, but it was better than nothing.

Her shoulder-mounted railgun swiveled and let off a burst as another shell plummeted toward her. The explosion rocked her again, but it was far enough away that it didn’t matter. She took that moment to get to her feet and make a run for a friendly position. Only problem was that her leg gave out after a few steps.

<You’ve got to be shitting me!> She felt the tingling sensation of her LACS filling her up with drugs. Whatever was wrong it wasn’t good. She couldn’t support the weight of her armor anymore and if she didn’t move, the Blockie’s accurate artillery was going to turn her to paste.

“Beastmaster, I’m calling in that favor now.”

“Shit.” Was the only response she got, but her armor responded to a STRATNET ping.

Beastmaster was still several hundred meters away, but that might as well be kilometers in a war zone. Gwen needed to find cover and get out of the artillery barrage if she wanted to survive. She limped awkwardly, putting more power than she should into the suit. Her railgun detonated the incoming ordinance overhead, but it kept giving away her position.

Finally, some loud booms in the distance created a lull in the fire and gave her some breathing room. She ducked into a meter and a half deep trench that had been carved into the ground by energy fire. She crawled for nearly a hundred meters until it ended at the side of a mostly destroyed building. She hefted herself out and rolled behind the exposed foundation.

Beastmaster found her there a few minutes later.

“Gunney, you look like shit.” He grunted as he gripped her under the arms and pulled her to her feet.

The adrenaline rush of getting away from the indirect fire was over, and Gwen felt as weak as a limp doll. All of her energy was gone.

“Let’s get out of here.” They linked their railguns for added defense and started to bound away from the building.

They were a second too late.

The PDC’s shield opened up to fire its energy cannons at the enemy. It was just rotten luck that at the same moment incoming fire from some warship in orbit came streaking down and hit the shield at that exact spot. The death ray got cut off the moment the shield went back up, but by then over a hundred terawatts of energy streaked through the PDC at the speed of light and collided with the building Gwen and Beastmaster had just abandoned.

All Gwen heard was the roar of the explosion before everything went black.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 119

Rear Admiral Hank Nelson

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“You can stop hovering, Lieutenant.” Task Force 33.4’s commander didn’t even look up from what he was doing.

Rear Admiral Nelson hadn’t received anything other than standard Fleet enhancements when he entered service over half a century ago, and since then he’d only undergone the routine tune-ups that were required by regulation. Enhanced senses didn’t have anything to do with noticing the young LT was standing just to the side of the entry hatch to the flag bridge of CWS Abraham Lincoln. The RADM knew the LT was coming because of situational awareness. He knew they’d received a drone in the last hour, which gave it time to transmit the data and for the aide to go over it and pick out what the RADM needed to know. After you did this enough times you got a sense for when the messenger was coming.

“Good evening, Sir.” The LT was a little red-faced as he entered.

The marine guard at the entrance to the bridge stared stoically ahead, but the RADM could see amusement in the SGT’s eyes. Unlike the regular bridge of the assault carrier, the flag bridge wasn’t fully occupied at all times. It had a larger holo-bubble to give a better tactical picture to the RADM and places for his staff to sit and contribute, but it was only fully staffed when he wanted it to be or they were going into battle. Since neither was the case right now, the RADM was meeting the LT alone.

“Take a seat and give me the briefing.”

“Thank you, Sir.” The LT did as instructed and got out his PAD. “First…”

“About fucking time.” Commander Patterson barged through the door with a smile on his face.

The LT was about to get to his feet to greet the large marine, but Nelson waved him off.  It seemed the ground forces commander had gotten the same briefing.

“I just heard the news.” The RADM pointed at the LT.

“They should have sent my whole brigade in the first place.” Excitement and irritation flashed across the CMDR’s face. “Who sends out eight thousand marines and leaves two thousand behind.”

“It’s my understanding those two battalions only got back from a deployment cruise three months before you and the rest of the 222nd were assigned to my task force, Per regulation a unit needs a minimum of a six month refit after a deployment.”

“Technically, yes.” The CMDR shrugged. “But when a whole brigade gets a posting the whole brigade should go. Plus, we could have used those two battalions after what we’ve been going through.”

“Well now we have them.” The RADM smiled. “And now we need to figure out a new deployment schedule.”

The meeting with Patterson wasn’t supposed to happen for another two hours, but since the marine was here it was better to just get it over with.

“Let’s review our task organization. Do you have your latest USR?”

The Unit Status Report used by the infantry gave decision makers information on a unit’s personnel readiness, equipment on hand, equipment serviceability, and training. All of that was used by commanders to determine the readiness of a unit.

“Yeah, here it is.” The CMDR made a swiping motion with his hand and four different sets of information divided themselves up into four quadrants. “We’re good to go on everything. Second Battalion was lacking after the battle in system 1552 but replacements are on the way with the 2223rd and 2224th.”

The RADM’s eyes passed over the data quickly. He’d seen enough USR reports to last a lifetime so he knew the important stuff. “The 2222nd is hurting in the HI department.” He noticed.

“We’ve got two new guys coming in on the boat. Both are green but they’ve got good marks from the course back on Mars, and they tend to be the biggest sticklers there.”

“I’m more interested with the equipment on hand.” The RADM pulled up the data by stretching it between his fingers. “We’re low on LACS.”

“They’ve been issued out reserves back on Thor.” The CMDR checked his data. “That’ll have to do.”

The RADM left it at that. They had bigger things to discuss than two new HI troopers. The big question was where to put the infantry brigade now that the task force was on a war-footing.

The York Sector currently had four colonized planets within two systems, and both were within twelve light years of each other. But that didn’t make it easy. It required the majority of fleet and infantry forces to protect the colonized worlds, but only doing that was playing too defensively. Troops and ships were needed specifically to guard the Alcubierre Launchers; they needed to patrol likely avenues of approach and especially the junction systems. Then there were the corporate contracts the Fleet had signed to routinely check out places like Cobalt Station. If that wasn’t enough, they were still mapping the York System, and sometimes that required more than drones to do the work.

<And this is why we get paid the big bucks.> The RADM looked over the numbers and churned over a plan.

He had an old assault carrier, five battleships – two of which needed yard time, ten battlecruisers, two missile cruisers, and two regular cruisers – both of which were damaged from fighting. He was down to thirteen of his original compliment of fifteen destroyers which gave his task force a grand total of thirty-three ships. It was a bottom heavy MTOE. He didn’t have the resources for a proper engagement if it came to it, so he needed to keep the enemy off balance.

Abe is going to stay here in New Lancashire orbit along with Galahad, Lancelot, and Yawin. I’ll send Gaiwan and Percival to Cheshire Prime.” The RADM doled out the big guns between the two habitable systems.

“I’ve got no control over the ship’s marine contingent. Those are a different unit, but I’ve got Gaiwan with two companies and Percival with three, so they’ll be able to drop somewhere if shit gets hairy.”

<Or defend those priceless battleships.> The RADM thought about the other purpose of the marines. Even if the marines didn’t like that type of fighting.

“I’ve already got a company on Cheshire in a FOB outside Warrington training up the local militia. They’re running them through a shortened version of basic training in five-week classes, but they’re only about twenty thousand who have been ‘trained’.” The marine might as well have used fingers to do air quotes judging by the look on his face.  “The FOB has a PDC, so if push comes to shove they’ll be able to hold for a little bit if invaded. Long enough for us to get more infantry there.”

The problem was there wasn’t much more infantry to give. The 222nd was tasked with defense of New Lancashire, protecting Abe, outfitting all of her gunboats, and securing the Launcher. That spread the brigade pretty thin.

<Defensive thinking loses wars.> An idea tickled the back of the RADM’s brain.

“We’re going to establish a strike force.” The comment took the CMDR by surprise, but the look on his face said he liked it. “Half a squadron of battlecrusiers and a missile cruiser.”

“They’ll have a little over half a battalion between them.” The CMDR checked his notes. “Not enough to invade anything, but more than enough to cause a little chaos.”

“Good. I’ll give them two of my gunboats as scouts and use the rest of them as well as most of my destroyers as picket forces in a few key systems. All will be close enough to be recalled if needed.”

The CMDR didn’t care much about the destroyer’s marine contingents. They only had a few squads per ship unless they were loaded down for transport, and the whole destroyer force could only put maybe four companies of boots on the ground. He had bigger issues to worry about.

“What about our royal friends?”

Nelson scratched his head as he thought about the nearby Star Kingdom. “No. It’s a fresh alliance. We aren’t going to ask them for military participation so soon. Not until we know more about them, their ships, and how they operate.”

“The Euros?”

Nelson tried not to laugh. “They don’t have more than the bare minimum in the Sector to protect their colony. We’d maybe get a destroyer or two of assistance if we asked them.”

“And if they need our help?”

“Then we have our strike force.” That made the CMDR smile.

They worked for another two hours getting picket forces and marine detachments all arranged before Nelson called his staff to start drafting orders. What the RADM needed to do was get in touch with the senior battlecruiser captain. Unless he didn’t like what he saw, that officer would be commanding the task force.  The RADM was about to make that call when the LT came alive as his PAD beeped urgently at him.

“A report in from Cobalt Station, Sir. Pirate attack.”

All the officers’ faces soured. The last thing they needed while making the opening moves in a conflict was greedy pirates stepping on their toes.

Argo engaged and destroyed the enemy. Lieutenant Commander Gold’s report will follow when he rendezvouses with the station.”

<Maybe the man isn’t half bad at his job after all.> The RADM thought, but would reserve judgment until he saw the report.

“Keep me informed.”

“Yes, Sir.”

With that finished the RADM went back to getting ready for war.

 

Duchess Josephina Barrow

Location: Windsor City, Windsor, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

Josephina, Duchess Rose Bay, marched across the exquisitely maintained gardens of the royal palace. Large, lush bushes were sculpted into the images of past kings and queens of the Windsor family. A one-story tall floral arrangement of roses was designed in the Windsor coat of arms: yellow roses for the lion, white for the unicorn, and genetically engineered roses to fit the blues, greens, and other non-natural rose colors on the crest. If that wasn’t impressive enough, all of the roses were in full bloom and would stay that was for weeks maybe even months. The centerpiece of the royal garden – a symbol of power for the monarch – couldn’t be seen to have plants dying.

The Duchess had seen the floral design dozens of times, so it didn’t impress her as much as the commoners lucky to see the palace gardens.  What caught her eye was what was standing in the shadow of the flowers. Three-meter-tall men in onyx black armor stood like statues on either side of the cobblestone path leading deeper into the garden.

The Duchess schooled her face and marched between them without hesitation. Even though one word from the Queen and they would snap her neck like a twig. The wall of guards ended and high hedges replaced them. She knew there were more guards lurking about, but she continued on without a sideways glance. She made a few memorized turns as she entered the maze that she’d played in as a child before coming face to face with a familiar member of the Obsidian Guard.

The man was a mountain; strong, sturdy, and unmovable. The Guard Captain was always the closest to the monarch beside their body, man or woman.

“Your Grace.” The Guard Captain looked down at Josephina even though she was over two meters tall.

The Duchess had known the Guard Captain for decades, but he still thoroughly scanned and searched her. Knowing this was coming, she had her PAD out and nothing else on her. Once allowed to pass, she walked into a sunlit clearing where two people sat engrossed in a game of chess.

One was a devilishly handsome man with a strong jaw and a neatly styled beard. He wore an expensive but casual smart-cloth suit, but had the jacket off and hanging over the back of his chair. Across from him was a tall, regal, yet young woman. Her hair was pale blonde, her body was slender but strong, and her face shone with a surprising amount of innocence for the ruler of a kingdom. An innocence that didn’t reach her eyes.

Josephina stood at a respectful distance as the two people stared each other down over the chessboard.

“Checkmate.” Queen Victoria III stated confidently less than five minutes later.

“Damn.” The man’s curse made her chuckle, before she leaned over and kissed him.

“Maybe next time.” The Queen looked over and saw Josephine waiting patiently. “Now if you’ll excuse me.”

“Sure.” The man’s face was still scrunched as he tried to figure out how he’d been beaten. “I’ll make sure the boys are cleaned up and ready for supper.” The man finally gave up examining the board and moved to pass Josephina. “Your Grace.” He greeted her tersely.

“Your Highness.” She greeted the Prince Consort – the Queen’s husband – equally succinctly.

Josephina had never gotten along with the Prince. He was too soft in her eyes, but she quickly forgot about him as the Queen rose for her seat and approached. Josephina curtsied low, nearly kneeling as her monarch approached.

“Really?” The Queen raised an eyebrow at the sign of submission. “Are you going to do that every time?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Josephina rose back to her feet, but there was a grin on her face.

“You do that and you know where it leads.” The Queen’s radiant purple iris’ flashed dangerously.

“No!” The Duchess blurted unceremoniously. “Please.” She added trying to regain her composure.

“Drop the titles then.”

“Your Majesty…”

“Fine,” the leader of the Star Kingdom of Windsor huffed with dignity. “Let’s go, Joe-Joe.”

The Duchess scowled. “You know I hate that name. It was the name of the class monkey in primary school.”

“And you know I hate all the bowing and scraping from my oldest friends. I might be Victoria the Third by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, of the planet Windsor and all Dominions among the stars, Queen, Defender of the Faith.” She made exaggerated hand gestures. “But you know in private I will always be Vicky to you.”

Josephina’s composure finally melted when she admitted defeat to her oldest friend.

“But you don’t come by just to visit me, Josie, so what have you heard from your friends in dark places.”

All of the friendly banter was gone from the Queen’s eye. A cold and calculating ruler stood in her place, and was now addressing Duchess Rose Bay her Chief of Intelligence.

Josephina’s face hardened as well. “Our diplomatic mission was a success. Lord Captain Churchill got everything we wished out of the treaty agreement signed with Rear Admiral Nelson. It still has to go to their Congress for ratification, but until then we are in a standing alliance with the Commonwealth.”

“Good.”

Josephina could see something going on behind the Queen’s eyes, but Her Majesty didn’t elaborate and she didn’t ask.

“Our intelligence source has also reported deployment of Commonwealth vessels and troops throughout their annexed sector.”

The Queen didn’t rebuke Josephina for insulting their new allies. The Duchess was of the opinion that everything in this area of space was the rightful property of the Star Kingdom. Just because the Commonwealth and Eastern Block had shown up in their neck of the woods didn’t change that. The Kingdom had been committed to smart, planned, and steady expansion. All those plans had been derailed in the last decade.

“Are they pushing toward our new territory?”

“Eventually they will reach the new colonies, Your Majesty, but it will take several more years at this rate. We’ve secured valuable junctions that we haven’t allowed them to reach yet.

“Is the fleet prepared?”

“Your Fleet is always prepared.” It wasn’t Josephina’s area of expertise, but she had enough spies in the officer ranks to know they were preparing for any eventuality.

“And the Commonwealth’s deployment plans?”

“For the most part they are shoring up their defenses and picketing key systems, but they are assembling a strike force to bloody the Blockie’s nose.”

“Have they asked for assistance?”

“No, Your Majesty. Rear Admiral Nelson doesn’t wish to strain our fragile relationship.”

“Smart,” the Queen pondered. “Dispatch a pair of cruisers to New Lancashire. We’ll set the tempo of this alliance without being overtly bullish.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“How long until our source runs dry?”

“We have another week at full power and double that if we only activate it intermittently.”

Josephina had put the source into play herself when she punished the Commonwealth spy. The nanites she’d put in his bloodstream had ridden the spy back to New Lancashire. Once there, the little robots had split up, some leaving his body in the assault carrier’s urinal, others in the governmental headquarters down on the planet – particularly in their intelligence section. Since then it had been a game of cat and mouse as they avoided the Commonwealth’s internal security features while gathering information and getting it to Kingdom operatives in the city.

Most had self-destructed and  been reduced to dust to avoid getting caught, but others were still going strong, and would go on for a little longer until they ran out of power. Josephina was hoping to have someone on the inside by then, but the Collies were pretty strict about security protocols. So far, she only had agents on the periphery, much like they’d been trying to do in the Kingdom. Despite their new alliance, there was no reasonable expectation that the espionage would stop any time soon.

“Let’s try to get as much life out of them as we can. The deployment plans will give our commanders time to react and free up my mind to deduce the next few moves”

Josephina had learned long ago to not play the Queen in chess. She was a prodigy at seeing all the angles. It was something that had been bred into her genome, and it was one of the reasons why she made such a good monarch. One of the other reasons was her ruthlessness, although only a few people would guess it from her elfin figure.

“Excellent work, Josie.” Just like flipping a switch the Queen compartmentalized her thoughts and returned to seeing the Duchess as her friend. “Now let’s get lunch.”

“Lunch?” Josephina cringed at the simple meal that would take at least two hours she didn’t have.

“Vicky, I…”

“Nonsense. It has been too long since you saw your godchildren. You’re coming. That’s a royal decree.”

Josephina couldn’t stop from rolling her eyes. “Fine. Lead the way, Your Majesty.”

They walked out of the garden and were surrounded by a small army of guards as they walked back toward the palace.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 14

<This place isn’t that bad.> Scarlett Vaan thought idly as she typed away on her keyboard.

Homework had never really been a problem for the young woman. She followed along in class, took good notes, applied herself in exercises, and that led to a solid ability to grasp concepts quickly. All of that made her a good student, and being a good student got her accepted into West Private’s Doctoral Program.

The key difference between being an undergrad and being a doctoral candidate was the quality and quantity demanded of her. Her whole life was supposed to be this doctoral program. She was supposed to completely dedicate herself to the study of the human mind.

<But I can’t.> She mentally sighed. <Because someone has to pay the bills.>

Even with all the grants and work-study programs she participated in through the university, the tuition was still expensive.

“Good evening, Ms. Vaan.” A voice greeted from behind her that made the young Super tense.

She took a deep breath to get control of herself and then plastered a confident smile on her face. “Agent Phillips. I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Here” was a nice, recently renovated coffee shop. It was pretty modern, but Scarlett could still see remnants of its hipster past poking through. It was packed nearly to capacity with college students. Some were doing work like Scarlett and others were hanging out, joking, and all together annoying the people trying to work.

“We like to keep an eye on people around campus now-a-days.”

<That’s very Big Sister of you.> Scarlett didn’t speak her thoughts out loud. Instead she tried to get a look at why the DVA agent was here.

Her attempt was met with a static sound. The DVA agent couldn’t keep all of her thoughts away from a skilled telepath, but she had decent defenses. That, and Scarlett still needed training to hone her gift and wasn’t going to poke around too deep. That wouldn’t do her any good.

“I’m honored.” The younger Super answered dryly. “What can I do for you? I assume you’re making contact to ask a favor of some kind.”

“It’s not a favor when we fund your college tuition, room and board, and give you a sizable stipend on top of an offer of future employment once you’ve finished your degree. It’s called an assignment.”

She had Scarlett there. The DVA was footing the bill for everything in return for her working for them after she graduated. Not as a Hero though. There was no way in hell Scarlett was going to finish four years of the HCP. If she really wanted it she was confident she could, but she didn’t want it. She was just here for the basic training and then it was all about school until she was a Ph.D.

“What’s my assignment then?”

“Who. Who is your assignment.” Agent Phillips corrected as she slipped a folder across the table.

It was plain manila and would have looked commonplace in any office in the country. Scarlett took it like it was no big deal, because doing a shady handoff would draw a lot more attention than two people seemingly exchanging notes. She flipped it open causally and studied the first page of the dossier.

“Cute.” She stated. “I’ve seen him around.”

“Good. We want you to keep tabs on him. Gather any information you can by extraordinary means.”

<She means using my ability not enhanced interrogation.> Scarlett just wished these government types would be a little more straightforward sometimes.

Part of Scarlett knew she could only do passive surveillance on anyone the DVA wanted her to, but a part of her wanted to be a little more active. She was still experimenting with her powers and starting to combine them with the knowledge she was gathering in her academic studies. She had a few ideas about techniques she wanted to try, but she need a human mind to do it. Her powers didn’t work on anything else. She assumed the HCP and DVA would frown on her hiring some stoner at minimum wage to pry around in his brain.

Right now, she could only think of one way to use her abilities.

“I also wanted to speak to you about your ranking.” The agent lowered her voice.

“What about it?” Scarlett did the same and had to stop from smiling at how ridiculous they must look.

“We would appreciate if you put forward a little more effort. At least give it the good old college try.”

“Thanks for the advice.” Scarlett smiled.

<Yeah, like I’m going to take HCP advice from a human who’s never been in one. I like my facial structure the way it is. I don’t want to take the chance and get my ass kicked all for the sake of someone’s report back to HQ.> She scoffed internally.

“Good.” The agent scanned the room. “We’ll be in touch.”

Just like that the government agent got up and walked out. One of the servers looked a little upset that she hadn’t ordered anything, but it was busy enough that she quickly faded from memory.

Scarlett on the other hand had one more thing on her plate.

<I get why they want me to watch Seth Abney, but they seriously can’t bring in another telepath to sit around and listen to his thoughts. I’ve got shit to do.> She also knew why the DVA wasn’t going to spend the cash to do that. They’d already bought her. Why would they shop around when they already had someone in place to do exactly what they wanted?

For the first time since signing that contract with the DVA before school, Scarlett wondered what exactly she’d gotten herself into.

 

***

 

Seth sat at the bar sipping his drink. He had a small pyramid of shot glasses piled up in front of him that he’d purposefully stopped the bartender from collecting multiple times. The place wasn’t too busy yet. It was still early. He liked to get a jump on the evening’s festivities. This place was pretty common with the college students. It didn’t serve underage kids knowingly. Seth looked like he could be in his early twenties and his fake ID was perfect. There were some people walking around with big X’s drawn in permanent marker on their hands, and that number was steadily starting to grow. Despite that, people were avoiding the drunk guy at the corner of the bar.

<Good.> Seth knocked back another shot and savored the burn of the alcohol going down his throat.

The sensation made him feel alive in a time when everything else was bullshit.

<How the fuck did she escape?> He wasn’t the only one thinking that. He was pretty sure the entire DVA was working on that.

Honestly, he didn’t really care about the how. He cared about what was going to happen next. Something deep inside him really wanted to see Liz again. He wanted to see her walk through that door like she owned the place. He wanted to see her hips sway and the way her smile seemed to dwarf everything else around her.

He knew he shouldn’t want it. It was like an addict knowing they wanted to get high but knew it was killing them. Liz was his drug, and he was pretty sure the feeling wasn’t going away any time soon. He was also scared. He was scared she was going to show up. He was scared she was going to walk through that door with her smile and bring a shitstorm down on his head.

He hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d never done anything to help Liz in committing her crimes. He’d just been a good boyfriend, or at least he thought he had. Now he wasn’t so sure. <What kind of person lets a person like her live right under his nose and never senses anything?>

It was the question he’d been asking himself for months, and he was no closer to an answer.

He waved his hand and another shot slid down the bar towards him. He caught it with a grace that seemed to ignore his blood alcohol level and downed it smoothly.

“Whoa, slow down there, champ.” A woman sat down next to Seth. The first to take the chance. “Save some for the rest of us.”

The woman was certainly cute, but Seth wasn’t in any state of mind to put in any effort to get laid. “Seat’s taken.” He replied sullenly.

“Yeah, I know. My ass is on it.” She ignored his surprised looked and ordered a shot of what he was drinking.

She just sat there after that. She didn’t say a word or even make eye contact with him. At one point she did sweep some of her loose silver hair behind her ear, but that was about it. She looked like her attention was somewhere else.

<Weird.> He shrugged, and continued his mission to build the boozy pyramids of Giza in front of him.

He only had two up when another person came running up to ruin his solitude.

“Hey, Seth!” Izzy was dressed for a night out and a group of girls followed behind her.

He appraised them quickly and thoroughly. He’d have sex with any of them any other night. Even if they were freshmen.

“I’m solo drinking, Izzy. This better be important.” He spun around on his stool and nearly toppled onto his face. She caught him before he fell, and he saw her blush from the physical contact.

She quickly let go as he righted himself.

“I just wanted to say hello and see what you think.” She modeled her outfit for him.

It took a minute for him to recognize it was some of the clothes he’d bought for her when they went shopping a few days ago. They really did look good on her.

“I also wanted to see if you were up for another drive sometime.” The words rushed out of her mouth so fast they nearly strung together. Then a panicked look came over her face. “I mean, you don’t have to buy me anything…unless you want to. I’m not opposed to it, but I really just want to get behind the wheel again.”

Seth was sure there was a sexual innuendo in there somewhere, but he bit his lip.

“Izzy, I…” He stopped not really knowing what to say.

Her face dropped, and he felt bad for her.

“Izzy.” He took a deep breath and tried to clear some of the alcoholic daze out for a moment. “You’re a good person, and I’m an asshole. You’re just getting your first year started, and you’re doing pretty well from what I hear. Third in the class?” He referred to the combat rankings.

She nodded, blushing again.

“Rumor is that you’ve got some serious talent, so I’m going to give you some free advice. Don’t hang out with people that are going to drag you down. Focus on school and your extracurriculars. You really don’t have time for anything else.”

Seth would have felt all noble if it wasn’t for the look of rejection on the younger girl’s face. His stomach rebelled at the sight, and he didn’t think it was totally from the booze.

“I’m just trying to be nice. You’re a good guy underneath all this whatever you might think.”

“You’re not my mother, Izzy.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. “I don’t need you telling me who I am, what I’m capable of, and I don’t need a pity party thrown in my honor. I’ll be fine.”

Izzy looked shocked for a second before her face grew hard. It was a look he’d never seen before on her.

“Sometimes you’re an ass, Seth.” She spun, her styled black hair splaying around her as she marched away.

“Finally, we’re in agreement.” He muttered to himself as he turned back to the bar.

The silver-haired girl was gone, but another woman in his life was approaching.

“I can hear her mental grumbles about you being a stubborn bastard all the way over there.” Kyoshi took the seat next to him.

Her and Mason were here for the karaoke, not the drinking. The pair actually made a good duet.

“It’s better this way. She was getting attached to a suspect in a DVA investigation. That wouldn’t have done her any favors. They’re probably already watching her because I bought her some clothes.”

“Maybe,” Kyoshi shrugged. “But don’t ruin any chance of happiness because you think people will get hurt being around you. You are training to be a Hero.” She dropped her voice low. “And so is she.”

“If I didn’t know any better I swear you were trying to fix me up.” Seth shook his head, but couldn’t hide his smile.

“I know by now that Seth Abney doesn’t need any help in that department.” She smiled back.

“Damn straight.” A beer arrived for Seth and he took a long pull from it.

“How about you stop drinking for tonight and come sit with us.” Kyoshi pointed over toward the tables gathered around a small raised stage.

“Is it just the two of you?” His vision was blurry enough that it was harder to see. “No Anika or Angela.”

“Just me and Mason.”

“Good.” Seth got to his feet and walked in a remarkably straight line toward the strongman sitting alone at one of the tables. “Because I can’t deal with anyone bitching to me right now.”

Despite the momentary distraction, Liz was always on his mind.

 

***

 

“So, what do you think?”

“What do you mean what do I think?”

Daisy and Debora were sitting next to each other at the dinner table. The Phillips family had moved the meal outside because of the comfortable weather. The porch was still screened in to deal with all of the bugs but aside from that they were as close to nature as they were going to get. Topher and Debora’s mother was helping cart dishes from the kitchen outside, and their father was judging Topher’s grilling.

“Abney?” Debora gave Daisy a small glare and she pitched her voice lower. “I don’t trust the kid.”

Daisy thought carefully about what she said next. “Abney might be a douchebag, but I don’t think he’d ever knowingly support someone like Wraith. He’s probably conflicted about everything that’s happened, but we need to put a little bit of trust in the guy. He is a sophomore in the HCP.”

“If he helped Wraith at all it was indirectly: money, influence, or some abstract us of his power maybe. And then there is the report of the assault and tree.” Debora continued.

“From what I understand he has a solid alibi for Wraith’s escape. Probably the best one of any suspect ever. He was in the middle of an HCP subtlety class with one of the most renowned spies in the southeast. As for the other two. The guy was confirmed DUI at the scene by Campus Police. He says he got in a fight with a guy matching Abney’s description, but he also could have walked into a pole for all we know. Concerning the tree, we live in Florida. Sink holes swallow peoples’ homes down here. It’s not outside reason that a tree just fell over without elemental manipulation.”

Debora frowned. “Whose side are you on?”

“I’m on the side of catching Wraith. Not just catching anyone or accusing them of stuff without solid evidence.”

“Well, one guy got what he had coming.”

Daisy had gotten a picture of the crime scene photos. One of the guards had tried to get Wraith out and he’d lost his head because of it. Daisy had a pretty good idea about who could make a cut like that.

“Yep,” Daisy sipped on a glass of sweet tea. “Don’t team up with supervillains.”

Mrs. Phillips slid into the seat beside Debora and the conversation ceased. Soon the chicken was done and they were all happily enjoying a well-cooked meal and each other’s company. Daisy lathered BBQ sauce on her chicken and took a healthy helping of greens to get her vegetables for the day.

“So, Daisy,” Mrs. Phillips suddenly turned her attention on the younger-looking Super. “When are we going to get to meet your parents?”

Topher’s fork stopped hallway to his mouth. “Mom…”

“No, it’s ok.” Daisy patted him on the knee. “My parents aren’t around anymore. They died when I was younger.”

“That’s terrible.” And it looked like she actually meant it. “It’s awful when disease takes a parent so young. It leaves an impression on the child too. Was it cancer?”

<Old age.> Daisy told the truth in her head.

“My Dad was wounded in the war and that eventually caught up with him.” Daisy covered.

“Vietnam wasn’t fun.” Mr. Phillips got a sad look in his eye for a moment before shaking his head and taking a bite of chicken.

<Neither was World War II or Korea.>

“Where are you from, Daisy?” Mrs. Phillips followed up by shifting the conversation.

“Mom.” Topher grumbled. “What’s with the interrogation?”

“What? I can’t ask my son’s serious girlfriend about her life. We hardly know anything about her.”

Daisy smiled at the serious girlfriend part, but still caught the backhanded snark at the end. Even if what Topher’s mom was saying was true. They didn’t know a lot about her for national security reasons, but there were some basic facts she could tell them without compromising herself.

“Originally, I’m from Savannah, but I’ve lived and worked in a lot of places.”

“Where?”

“Mom…please.” Topher knew she couldn’t go into too much more detail.

“Before here I was up in New York City.”

“Topher used to be with the NYPD. You two might have even run into each other before.”

“Mom, there are millions of people in New York City and we didn’t even live in the same part of town.”

“Where did you live before the city?” His mom ignored him and continued on with the polite interrogation.

“After I graduated college I worked in LA for two years.”

“Tried the whole acting thing? I thought about it when I was young, but never took the leap and moved out there.” Mrs. Phillips focused on something in her past and that gave Topher the opportunity to shoot his dad a warning glare.

“No acting for me,” Daisy shrugged, “but I did meet some famous people.

<And was the famous person.> LA in the sixties and seventies had been crazy.

“How about you, Debora. How is your work going?” Mr. Phillips took his son’s cue and changed the direction of the conversation.

That was how dinner went. Mrs. Phillips tried to get more and more details out of Daisy about her life, and was more and more disappointed when she didn’t have much to give. Having no living family earned Daisy some pity points, but they wouldn’t last long.

“Wow, protective mamma bear alert.” Debora chuckled as she and Daisy started washing the dishes inside.

“What?”

“Mom thinks you and her baby boy are getting serious enough to start digging through your life looking for dirt.”

“Is that a good or a bad thing?”

“Hmm.” Debora scratched her chin with a soapy hand.  “It’s good that she’s finally seeing you in a similar way to Topher. Being on the same page is important for them. On the other hand, there isn’t much dirt for her to find.”

“Because all of that dirt is hidden behind firewalls at the DVA.”

“That…and you’re really old. Oh god,” a spark of something flashed across her face. “I just realized your older than my mom.”

Daisy hoped she’d gloss over that little fact.

“And you’re dating my younger brother…ewww…your code name should be Cougar.”

“Fuck you.” Despite the cursing both women were grinning.

“After dinner drink?” She asked. “Dad and Topher are going to have a man talk. Safe sex will probably be on the agenda, so it’ll do us both some good to get some alcohol in our system. Where does my bro keep the good stuff?”

Daisy gave her directions and she came back a minute later with a nice bottle of scotch. She opened it and poured a healthy helping for them both

“To being one of the family.”

Daisy didn’t drink it, but she didn’t want to be rude and ruin the moment. The comment still took her by surprise. “Whoa now.”

“I’m just saying.” Debora winked and took a big swig. “Ahhh that’s good shit.”

The conversation didn’t turn back toward Daisy’s past or the unusual courtship her and Topher seemed to be in the middle of. Mostly, Debora just got tipsier, didn’t notice that Daisy never touched her glass, and told stories that Daisy would use to blackmail Topher in the future. The best were the ones when she made her little brother dress up like a girl and sit in on her tea parties. Daisy didn’t know what was more surprising about that: that Topher had been forced to cross-dress, or that Debora had tea parties.

Unfortunately, all good things eventually came to an end. Daisy called Debora an Uber to get her back to her hotel. The parents retired to the guest room around nine-thirty, which left her and Topher alone.

“Did I pass?” Daisy cut right to the chase. “I’ll have to review my cover story when I get into work on Monday, but I’m sure I didn’t say anything that would give me away.”

“Sorry about that.” Topher polished off his last drink. “Mom does that sometimes.”

“Sometimes being when you’re getting serious with someone.” She got up from her seat, sat down in his lap, and gave him a quick kiss. She didn’t want to taste the alcohol on his tongue.

“Sorry.” He apologized again.

“Don’t apologize that we’re getting serious.” She gave him a stern look. “I’m not.”

“Me neither.” He kissed her back, and they spent a couple of minutes like that.

They couldn’t do any more while his parents were staying there. Neither of them was willing to risk that awkwardness.

“Let’s go to bed.” Topher meant it in as much of a plutonic way as he could after making out with her.

“I’ll be right behind you. I just need to grab something.”

Topher climbed the stairs as she walked back into the kitchen. She needed her laptop to check on any recent updates concerning the Wraith case. There was a good chance the supervillain would come back to town, and the HCP needed to be ready.

“Reaper.” He codename was whispered right next to her ear.

If she hadn’t been a seasoned Hero she probably would have blown the circuit breaker. Electricity flashed across her body, enough to stun a strongman if he was standing too close. Some of that electricity coursed into her brain and heightened her perception. She spun, ducking down into a crouch as she took in the room. Her eyes searched for the enemy but found nothing.

“Reaper.” The voice repeated itself, but no one was here.

It was only Daisy, the kitchen light, and the natural darkness that was permeating the rest of the room.

“Meet me.” The voice asked before reading off an address.

“That’s a big fuck no.” Electricity still crackled along her skin as she marched around the room double checking every nook and cranny. It was always possible someone had planted a microphone somewhere.

“Not even as a favor for an old friend.”

That stopped Daisy in her tracks. <No one is here but someone is speaking to me.> The number of people who could do that and would call her an old friend was a very short list. Under the circumstances, only one made sense.

“Night?”

“Meet me.” The voice repeated the address but sounded amused this time.

“Fuck me.” Daisy huffed, but didn’t get a reply.

If she didn’t know any better she would have thought the old gang was getting back together. Which begged the bigger question of what the fuck was going on?

Previous                                                 Next

I’m on TDY from Hell – Mutt Hunt

“Thank you so much for coming, Sir. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Gerry plastered a fake smile on his face and tried to not step on the little man walking next to him. The man was a dwarf. Not a dwarf as in a little person, but an actual dwarf. He’d been present at the gathering where Gerry had accepted the contracts, but had been hidden from view by the simple fact that his head didn’t clear the pew.

The dwarf’s contract made it into the pile despite his height, and now Gerry found himself south of the city on the McDowell Nature Preserve. The small patch of land with developments on all sides and Lake Wylie running along most of its boarder wasn’t anything special to look at if you had human eyes. Those that had the spark of magic, Divine light, or Infernal fire saw what it really was. McDowell Nature Preserve was a sanctuary for nymphs that had emigrated from Greece half a millennia ago.

The nature spirits took the forms of young girls. They flitted among the trees, rivers, and streams of the preserve where they endowed the land with beauty. The nymphs were a harmless species that favored singing, dancing, and generally being merry. Gerry found their existence interesting but ultimately pointless. Still, they provided a convenient alibi.

“It’s terrible, just horrible, Sir.” The dwarf, the Preserve’s caretaker, was on the verge of tears. “Six Dryades and three Naiads gone in a fortnight. Who would do such a thing? It’s an unthinkable loss. They’re on the endangered species list. We can’t afford to lose any more.”

It was obvious who was doing it. Tracks were all over the place, and reports of animal attacks on the human population were common over the last two weeks. It was the Lycans who’d found the Preserve and were feasting on the nymphs.

<Word on the street is they’re delicious.>

Satyrs had hunted the nature creatures in the old country, and things had only become more dangerous once they reached the new world.

<And now I’m here to save the day.>

“Thank you for your contract, Dwarf.” Gerry didn’t remember the little creature’s name. “I’ll take it from here.”

The little creature looked more than a little relieved at not having to enter the dark forest with Gerry. It was for the best. The dwarf’s stubby little legs wouldn’t carry it that far before the wolves snatched him up and ate him. The imagery of the little man trying to run for his life brought a chuckle to Gerry’s lips which he quickly disguised as a cough. The little thing didn’t even notice as it scurried back towards its miniature cabin built into the side of a hill.

Gerry had another thought about huffing and puffing and blowing houses down, but stopped the train of thought before it could continue. He had a job to do and it required him to concentrate.

By now it was easy to harness his Chi and pull it out to create weapons. He created the sword and shield he’d used on his first contract against the troll. He buckled the sword to his belt – it was easier to maintain the construct if he had physical contact with it – and he slung the circular shield over his back. Next he crafted an eight-foot spear from his energy.

<Just like old times.> It had been a few hundred years, but Gerry hadn’t forgotten his spear-wielding days as a skirmisher in Seere’s legion.

With his weapons ready he marched into the forest looking for his prey.

 

***

 

PREY

Grimm walked through the neighborhood sniffing the air and searching for the scent his master had given him.

FIND

There were other two-leggeds running around as he prowled the streets, but his master told him to ignore them. They were not to be harmed. Harming them would lead to pain. Grimm loved his master. He didn’t want to disappoint him. Pain was the least of his worries.

Human’s couldn’t see a Hellhound, which was why they weren’t all running in absolute terror as a large black beast, slightly larger than a Great Dane, walked down the center of their idyllic suburban street. His fur was midnight black and sleek. Anyone who touched it would find it was only slightly less yielding than steel. Grimm’s kind were built to last, to track, and to kill their pray for their master.

MASTER

Grimm could feel his creator. He was far away to the south, almost too far to feel him through the bond of creation. Master was on his own hunt. Master would kill his own prey tonight.

Grimm breathed deeply and his forked tongue lashed out and tasted the air. The prey was close. The scent was strong here. He turned his head left and right. The scent was weaker to the left so he started walking toward the dwelling on the right. It was tall, three stories, with a well-maintained lawn, and white picket fence around the edges. Grimm easily leapt the obstacle and continued around the back.

The scent only grew stronger. The prey walked this path consistently.

Doors weren’t a problem to a Hellhound. There was no warding to keep him out, so Grimm focused on the other side of the door – and he was there. Only a small tremor through the fabric of reality revealed his hop from exterior to interior.

An adult two-legged sat at a table with its face buried in an electronic device. It smelled similar to the prey but was not it.

EAT?

Grimm thought about it but shook his big head. His master’s orders were specific. He might come back later if master allowed it.

Another creature inhabited this dwelling, and it came around the edge of the table screeching.

“Shut up, Ruby!” The two-legged growled at the dwelling’s four-legged defender.

The defender couldn’t see Grimm, but it could smell him. It didn’t even come up to Grimm’s knee. It wasn’t a threat, but it could alert the prey to Grimm’s presence. A sub-vocal growl echoed out of Grimm’s throat. The defender cut off mid-yelp and toppled over onto its side – paralyzed.

The two-legged didn’t even notice.

Grimm followed the scent to a set of stairs that led down. He took them silently, his padded feet hiding his approach from his prey.

PREY?

Grimm took one last sniff and knew he had who he was searching for.

The room was cloaked in an unnatural darkness, but Grimm was a creature of darkness and fire. It only served to heighten his senses. He stalked through the inky blackness until he came to a bed. The prey was fast asleep and unaware that it was living its last moments.

Grimm pulled himself up onto the bed until he was towering over the prey.

“Wha…”

The prey was small, skinny, and weak. Grimm could smell the scent of magic in him, but it was soft.

“Who’s…?”

Grimm didn’t let the prey finish.

KILL

His master’s command echoed in his head as he clamped his massive jaws down on the prey’s throat. The prey gave a strangled scream as serrated teeth sawed into him as Grimm shook his head back and forth.

He backed up and easily pulled the prey neck first out of the bed and onto the floor. A thick trail of blood marked their path.

The prey was trying to say something and weakly batting Grimm’s shoulder with his fists, but it was no use.

Grimm thrashed, flinging the body like a rag doll all over the room until he felt the crack of the prey’s neck break. The prey went limp. Blood coated the walls and continued to flow from its corpse.

EAT

Grimm opened his mouth to an unnaturally large size and revealed his black maw. Like a black hole the body of the prey was sucked toward him before shuddering. It stopped like it was caught on something, and then a bright object pulsing with power detached itself from the body and disappeared into Grimm’s gullet.

DEAD. LEAVE.

He burped as the soul passed through him and down into Prince Seere’s realm. Master had been very specific about leaving the body, but not the soul. Still, Grimm had to mark his conquest someway, so he lifted his leg and peed on the remains.

There was another pop of relativistic disturbance as Grimm went from the interior to the exterior. He broke into a trot as he headed back toward the city. His bloody tongue lolled out the side of his mouth and dripped the life essence of the Dark Mage of Charlotte along the middle of the street.

TREAT!

Master had promised him a treat if he did what he was supposed to. Grimm couldn’t wait. His three tails wagged excitedly as he headed home.

 

***

 

Completing this contract served multiple purposes. One, it provided him an alibi for Grimm’s mission. Two, it satisfied Vicky’s incessant grumbling about the Lycans to the south. Three, it continued to show the supernatural community of Charlotte that Gerry was a good guy. Finally, it allowed him to kill something.

It had been too long since he’d killed something, and Lycan’s like these unorganized mutts weren’t terribly difficult to kill. So, to make it more of a challenge, he waited for the full moon. They were at their strongest under the light gray orb in the sky, their instincts were sharpest, and they were at their most vicious.

<But they never look up.> Gerry stood on a tree branch fifty feet above the forest floor.

He could see the whole pack moving beneath him. They were spaced out over several hundred feet with one wolf farther forward. Their alpha was at the center. A large gray wolf half against as big as any of the others. Gerry hoped to deal with him last. First he needed to deal with the others. There were four of them.

A plan quickly formulated in his head, he waited for the right moment, and he stepped off the branch.

He plummeted to the ground without a care in the world. He bent his knees at the last moment before smashing into the spine of the first wolf. The creature didn’t even have time to cry out in pain as Gerry snapped its back in half and plowed it into the ground. The parts of the creature that didn’t explode outward crumbled until the Lycan was hardly recognizable.

The Alpha’s head whipped around at the sound of its underling’s death. It gave a sorrowful howl that had an uptick of rage at the end. The pack stopped moving forward and immediately charged Gerry. Two headed straight for him, the Alpha hung back, and one vanished from sigh, presumably circling around to get him from behind.

It was all very predictable.

He stood there and watched them charge. They were faster than an average wolf, moving close to a hundred miles an hour when they got up to full speed. Their power was heightened by the full moon and their animal instincts were in overdrive after the death of their pack mate. Gerry used it all against them.

At the last second he leapt off the ground at an angle. Soil and roots exploded around him from the power of the leap. One of the wolves craned its neck trying the snap at him while trying to turn. It missed, and trying to turn at that speed didn’t end well. It tripped and careened into its partner. They both went tumbling into the underbrush.

Gerry’s launch took him to a nearby tree, he used it as leverage, pushing off it, and going even higher.

The sound of claws on wood was the only advanced notice he had. Instinctually, he tucked and drew his sword. The wolf that had tried to go around had climbed a tree and launched itself like a fury bullet right into Gerry’s path.

Gerry’s tucked chin pulled him into a somersault. The wolf barely missed him, flying right over him, but Gerry didn’t miss. His sword lashed out and cut open the wolf’s stomach. Blood and guts fell to the forest floor and the creature howled in death. It smacked into tree Gerry had been aiming for with a crunch and then fell twenty feet to the ground. It didn’t get up.

<Two down. Three to go.> Unfortunately, Gerry’s tuck had also thrown him off course.

He hit the tree hip first with a THUD that vibrated up into his shoulders before falling toward the ground. He got his feet up and pushed off the tree causing it to crack under the pressure and tumble to the ground. Gerry launched horizontally away from the tree, back flipped, and was able to get his feet under him before he hit the ground at an angle. He dug a shallow trench before he stopped.

He straightened up and was immediately hit and knocked to the ground by a ball of gray fur. The impact knocked all the wind from his lungs, but he was able to get his shield back around before razor sharp teeth followed up the Alpha’s attack.

Sparks flew as the giant wolf tried to eat his shield. <Move!> His instincts screamed at him. Staying still meant death is a fight like this.

The Alpha lunged again, digging his teeth into the shield. Gerry angled his shield to the side, throwing the Alpha off balance, and delivering a swift kick to the ribs. The blow staggered the gray wolf, and gave time for Gerry to arch his back and launch himself back to his feet.

Just in time, because the two other wolves came barreling back in to join the fight. The weren’t all the much shorter than Gerry on all fours, and when a brown one reared up on two legs like a horse it dwarfed the Infernal Dux’s human form.

Not that it mattered. Gerry knew the Lycan was trying to bring its full weight to bear on the shield in the hopes of breaking it, but it never made contact. Gerry spun lightly out of the way, so the wolf came down on hard ground with Gerry to its side.

Where he promptly stabbed it in the neck.

The brown wolf collapsed with blood squirting from the severed artery, but there wasn’t any time to celebrate. The final black and gray wolf were circling him now, snarling with hate.

Gerry considered his options and started to pour power into his shield. It glowed hot like molten iron as the power built up. The black wolf took a step back, but the Alpha wasn’t afraid, and it snapped at its remaining underling to get it back into line. The black wolf shook its head like if had just been physically struck, snarled, and charged.

Gerry was ready. He caught the wolf mid leap with a blast of light from his shield. It stunned the Lycan and didn’t allow it to see the spear Gerry summoned and was bracing into the ground. It pierced the black wolf’s heart, but didn’t stop it from collapsing on top of Gerry.

The Alpha didn’t hesitate. It jumped on the corpse of its final pack mate and began to tear through him to get to Gerry.

He partially succeeded.

Gerry felt claws rip into his shoulder before he could bring his shield back around. A chunk of flesh was torn from him and blood because to leak down and stain his clothes.

Now it was the Infernal Dux’s turn to growl.

He lashed out with his sword and took the Alpha’s foot off. The big wolf hissed in pain, but kept up the attack. Claws rasped against Gerry shield over and over again. His dismissed his Chi spear and summoned another one. He drove it out from the mutilated wolf carcass and caught the Alpha in the shoulder. This time the big wolf squealed in pain and backed up. It slipped it its own blood, and without the traction of its fourth foot it fell hard.

It scrambled to get back to its feet, but the fall was all the time Gerry needed. He exploded out from the wolf carcass, showering the nearby forest in gore. He raised his sword up high above his head as he fell and drove it into the alpha’s skull. It went through skin, bone, brain, and exited the lower jaw.

The big gray wolf shuddered violently and then keeled over.

Gerry took a moment to recover, regulated his breathing, and felt the adrenaline begin to fade. With it came a rush of pain that almost drove him to his knees.

<I got lucky.> He grimaced through clenched teeth.

A Lycan Alpha’s bite was poisonous and would have required Gerry to tap into his Infernal nature to heal. It would have ruined the whole reason for him being out here in the first place.  Now, he didn’t have to pretend that the fight had taken something out of him. It would cement him even more as the human martial magician, and no one would be the wiser.

He reached out with his mind and located Grimm. The hellhound was already moving deeper into the city back toward the demesne.

<Good boy.> He thought and got to his feet and started to trudge out of the forest. He had to see the dwarf on the way out to confirm he was where he said he was when he said it. He expected the questions to start coming his way by morning.

<We both had a good hunt today.> He could feel Grimm’s elation at master’s mental presence, and he had the sudden urge to scratch the big dog’s belly. <Vicky’s whores can wait.>

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Two Worlds – Chapter 118

Eve Berg

Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Move! Move! Haul those lazy asses out of bed and MOVE!”

Sound ripped Eve and the rest of the ranger candidates out of their light sleep. They had learned over the last few months that sleeping too soundly was a good way to die.

<Just eight hours of sleep. Is that too much to ask for?> Eve grumbled to herself but not anyone else.

She lithely dropped from her top bunk and ignored the slight pain in her heart when she saw the bottom wasn’t occupied by SGT Diggle. It was just an old rolled up mattress with a blanket folded perfectly right next to it.

<Move or you die.> The thought ran through her head so she moved down the length of the barracks and into the latrine.

It was unisex and almost identical to the one back in Basic. The rest of the ranger candidates were frantically conducting personal hygiene, taking a shit, and a few of the more brazen ones getting in the shower.

“What’s the time hack?” she asked as she waited in line for one of the sinks.

“We’ve got an hour…”

<An hour was an eternity.> She felt her day brighten.

“…to do this, eat, clean the barracks, and gather all of our gear.”

The bright, shiny day suddenly had a severe case of overcast skies. “All our gear?”

“Yep.”

An eternity turned into not enough time in a flash. All of their gear meant their V3s. And if they wanted them in their V3s then there was at least fifteen minutes of pre-combat checks that needed to be run. That already put her down to forty-five…no…forty-three minutes because she’d been standing in line for two.

She abandoned her wait for the sink and hustled back to her bunk. There was a duffel in her assigned locker so she started to pack that. She could do personal hygiene after she cleaned but before she ate. She didn’t have a lot of stuff, but there was a science in how you packed it. Not only did you need to put the stuff you’d most likely need on the top, but you needed to fit everything in the small bag in the first place. No matter how much space you had it never seemed to be enough.

She packed like an expert in five minutes. Then she smoothed out the wrinkles on her bed. It was already perfectly made to standard. It was too hot on this hellhole to sleep beneath the covers anyway. Just lying on top of it saved her time and suffering from dehydration first thing in the morning.

Confident her area would pass inspection, she went back to the latrine. The lines had thinned out so she was able to wash her face with water, her pits and more sensitive places with nanite-infused cleaning wipes. She didn’t bother to do anything with her short-cropped hair other than make sure it didn’t get in her eyes. After a quick trip to the porcelain throne she was back upstairs and tearing into an MRE.

She scarfed down the poor attempt at eggs and precooked soy bacon, but mildly enjoyed the protein bar. After that it was off to the armory.

The squat duro-steel building looked just like every other armory she’d ever seen, but the inside of this one was truly beautiful. She wasn’t the first one it to check on her LACS, but she was one of the early ones. She gave her armor a pat as she walked up to it to start her external inspection. After a quick pass around that showed nothing was out of place she opened it up and started running internal diagnostics. There was no ammo in the armor, per regulation, but she opened all of the ports just in case. It also served to air out the armor a bit. It smelled pretty ripe after the weeks of field training exercises they’d been doing since the drop from orbit.

She ignored a second stab of heartache and after completing her diagnostics hopped in and closed up the LACS. By this point it felt more like a part of her than a piece of advanced technology.

With a couple of minutes to spare the entire class was in formation outside of the barracks. The instructors were there looking bored or intimidating. That was normal. What wasn’t normal was the caravan of vehicles lined up next to the road. They’d never ridden in vehicles since Eve arrived. They always ran everywhere.

“Company, atten-hut!” SGM Queen called the group to attention and gave them his patented stern expression. “Congratulations, Rangers!”

Eve was immediately on the alert for anything out of the ordinary because this was the first time the SGM hadn’t called them candidates or something more vulgar. It was also the first time he’d congratulated them on anything.

The SGM cracked a small smile which was truly horrifying. “Your formal training to become Rangers is now over.”

<What the fuck?!> Eve was pretty sure everyone was thinking the same thing because they all knew how long the program was and they had a whole month left.

“Don’t start getting any ideas.” The SGM confirmed her suspicions. “For the next month, we’re going to stop coddling you.”

Eve had to stifle a laugh and was sure one of the instructors watching the formation was going to get in her face about it. But no one did.

“We’ve done our part. Now it’s time for you to do yours. The last phase of your training is entirely up to you.”

<Interesting.> Eve did a lot of research about ranger school before coming and she didn’t know anything about this.

“For the next four weeks, and maybe longer due to the needs of the service, you will be imbedded in Ranger units throughout the galaxy. You will conduct operations with them and you will learn the shit we can’t teach you in a controlled environment. After that month is up, and if you are still alive, you will undergo the patch ceremony with that unit. You will get blood-pinned by the men and women you’ve bled beside. Hell, you might even stay with that unit, but no promises there.” The smile was gone and a serious look replaced it. “Make no mistake, this is the real fucking deal now. While we’ve been comfortably secluded on this lovely paradise, things have started to spiral down the shitter in the real world. We’ve got conflicts in two sectors with war on the horizon, and that doesn’t even count the little insurrections that pop up every year or welfare riots. There will be no shortage of missions for you over the next month, so take the time on your ride to your duty station to do something for yourself.” The smile was back. “Because you sure as hell won’t have any time later.”

“On the command of fall out you will report to the instructors behind you for your assignments. The V3s you are wearing are yours. We understand what it takes to get the preferences in your LACS right so we aren’t going to take that away from you before throwing you into the shit.”

<That’s a relief.> Eve fell out when the command was given. The armor was exactly how she liked it, and it had taken her months to get it this way.

She got in line with everyone else to receive their orders. The plan was for them to take the same stealth sloops they’d arrived in to the main distribution points of the Commonwealth Infantry. There they would team up with their units and go wherever the hell they were needed.

“Berg, you’re over there with that group.” The same SSG that had thrown Eve over her shoulder when she’d been captured during SERE training pointed her to a group of four standing over by one of the sloops.

Eve hefted her duffel over her shoulder and walked over to the small gathering where everyone was speculating where they were going. Speculation ranged from the Rim to Earth where they’d have to put down Rats in full rebellion.

By the time the instructors were finished dividing up the new semi-Rangers between the sloops the largest group was Eve’s, and things only got better when SGM Queen joined them.

“Mount up!” He yelled, propelling them into motion.

There was no hesitation, and in under a minute they were all strapped in, their weapons secure, and running diagnostics of the emergency equipment stationed near them. They all remembered the flight out to Styx and were ready for a repeat.

Minutes later there was a soft rumble and the sloop lifted off and shot toward the heavens.

“Settle in.” The SGM ordered before crossing his arms over his chest and closing his eyes. “We’ve got a twelve-hour flight ahead of us before the real fun starts.”

Eve was both exhilarated and scared. All of her emotions were wrapped up into a confusing ball that she had no outlet for. The SGM seemed to notice this about all his former students. So he tossed them a bone.

“You all are lucky.” He smiled, which didn’t help Eve’s emotional state. “When I did my first ops we went into a mining colony that was refusing to pay its taxes.” He scoffed at the good old days. “You guys get to be part of a fleet-level action. You’re getting the whole experience with a good unit: Alpha Company, Third Battalion, Third Ranger Brigade. Hell, you might even get your first combat drop under your belts a couple of days in.” The SGM laughed.

Eve didn’t call that luck. The last thing in this world she wanted to do was another pod drop. After what happened last time it was tough to think about what could go wrong with one where people were actually shooting at you.

“Don’t worry.”

Eve didn’t know if the SGM was talking to her or the group.

“Syracuse is still half a day away. Catch some Z’s, come to grips with your humanity, and then get your heads in the game because it will be go time.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 117

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Alcubierre Bubble, Space

 <Punch…dodge…counterpunch…block.> Coop ignored the pain that shot through his arm and into his shoulder. All things considered, he was doing a kick ass job.

The 2223rd and 2224th Infantry Battalions had finally deployed to York Sector in the Rim, and they were flying there in style. Normally, transportation was handled by the fleet of troop transport ships the Fleet had ready, but things didn’t always work out the way they were supposed to; especially when it was an emergency deployment. Suddenly having to find a ride for two thousand grunts and all of their gear was a monumental logistical task. Luckily, this wasn’t the first time the Commonwealth had faced a situation like this.

The answer to the problem was interstellar cruise lines.

Coop thought that had come out of left field when him, Mike, and the replacements for the 2222nd were marched toward a half-kilometer long luxury liner. The crew stood next to the boarding ramp providing water, reassurance, and thanks for everyone’s service to the Commonwealth.

“The government owns a certain percentage of the industry. That way they earn some extra cash and always have transportation in case shit like this happens,” SSG Hightower explained as he led the way down to the lower decks where the HI enlisted were going to be berthed.

The SSG had a quick word with the officers and all the HI were able to break away from their units. Building espirit de corps and optimizing operational integrity by interunit cross training was the official line they were selling the brass, but really they just wanted to hang out and do their own thing.

That “own thing” wasn’t all fun and games.

Coop backed away and circled, shaking out his arms and spitting out a loogie thick with blood.

“Keep your hands up, Cooper.” SSG Hightower motioned a proper defensive stance. “You keep dropping your arms when you get tired. Suck it up.”

Among other things the five star luxury liner had available, one was a kick ass gym. It wasn’t nearly big enough for a bunch of ground-pounders who had nothing better to do for the multiple-day trip to New Lancashire other than work out, PMCS gear, or do pointless cleaning details. The place was always packed to the brim, but the one place that usually had a little bit of space was the anti-grav pit.

Normally, to blue-blooded guests the pit was a great way to simulate sky diving or any other number of stimulating activity. The HI had a different purpose for it, but it was no less stimulating.

The SSG had turned up the gravity to triple earth-norm and conducted combatives drills every few hours. That was why Coop was currently sweating, wore protective padding on his head, fists, and shins, and was bleeding from a cut lip.

Coop hadn’t taken the hit lying down though. Even if he lost, the SSG knew he’d been in a fight; but from the way things were going Coop thought he might actually stand a chance.

<I’ve got this.> Coop circled, rushed in to do a quick combination, and then feinted a retreat. When the SSG came after him, Coop unleashed a devastating side kick meant for the SSG’s torso.

<Motherfu…!> The kick never landed. The SSG smoothly slide to the side while wrapping his arm around Coop’s leg.

That left Coop hopping there with the SSG securely holding him by the calf. If this had been a real fight the SSG could have done some serious damage to Coop’s knee or ankle. All he had to do was yank one way and push the other and Coop would need a visit to the Battalion surgeon to repair torn tendons or broken bones.

But this was training, and thankfully SSG Hightower didn’t ruin Coop’s day. But that didn’t mean the SSG let him get away from looking like an idiot.

Coop hopped around trying in vain to lash out and score a hit on the SSG. He didn’t want to take the fight to the ground, the SSG’s ground game was light-years ahead of his, so he was left their trying to think of a way to counter the NCO’s iron grip.

The crowd around the edges of the pit ooohed and ahhhed as the two giants went at it. Bets were being taken, and people were screaming as they lost half their paycheck on these little bouts. Coop had put down a few bucks on himself to win this fight. The SSG had the better odds by a long shot, but you had to take risks to earn rewards.

<Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen today.> His eyes scanned the crowd until they met a familiar set of brown ones.

For the life of him, Coop couldn’t remember the girl’s name. He had the curves of her body memorized, but her name continued to elude him. <Jill…Jamie…Gisel?> He was a little rattled from the fight.

She was a PFC from another unit so there was no conflict of interest. Not that Coop would have given a shit if there was. They’d been fucking like bunnies over the last couple of days, and he could tell from the look in her eyes that he’d be getting another type of workout when this fight was over. His vision was much better than an average human so he saw the way her smartcloth tightened as she breathed deeply. Some sweat dripped from her forehead as she watched the two HI go at it, and the way she slightly bit her bottom lip was all the nonverbal communication that Coop needed.

He gave her a smile, which ignited an animal passion on her face, but that was cut short when a shot of pain rampaged through Coop’s body. The SSG still had his leg in a firm grip, and had noticed Coop was distracted; so he started repeatedly pummeling him in the hamstring. Getting punched in the hamstring hurt like a bitch, especially when the painful shockwave reverberated up toward his nuts.

Four punches and Coop lost his balance and went tumbling to the ground. Once he was down it was quick. The SSG fell on top of Coop, knocking the wind out of him, and using the momentary lung spasm to pass Coop’s guard. Straddling on top of him, the SSG unleashed a few punches to Coop’s unprotected face before pulling back.

“You’re done, Cooper. Not bad, but not great either. I will concede you were better than last time. “

Coop felt like an idiot thinking he could take the more experienced NCO, but he accepted the man’s hand and gingerly got to his feet. Most of the crowd was cheering, but there were a few boos for those who’d lost their money. Coop gave them all the finger and then locked eyes with, <Jennifer, that’s it..wait…no…> It didn’t matter. If eyes could suck a dick then she was going to town on him.

“Ok, that’s it!” Hightower took control of the rambunctious group with a few loud words. “Shit, shower, shave and be ready for formation at 1330. We’ll see what the afternoon’s tasks are.”

That gave Coop and what’s-her-face time for a forty five minutes quicky. From the way his leg spasmed when he put pressure on it, he’d probably just have to lay there on his back and take it from her. Not that there was a problem with that.

She approached him, her eyes locked on like a tractor beam with another woman in tow. The other woman, a PVT by the rank insignia on her shoulder, had a hungry look on her face.

“Oh sweet baby Jesus.” Coop muttered to himself thinking about what fun the three of them could have together.

Of course, when something awesome was about to happen to him something had to immediately ruin it.

“Attention all personnel! Soldiers of the 2222nd and 2223rd report immediately to Observation Deck Alpha. Attention all personnel! Soldiers of the 2224th report to Observation Deck Bravo. Attention all personnel.” The message repeated.

Coop looked over to the SSG who just shrugged and started yelling for people to haul ass to their assigned observation deck. Coop looked back and the two women were gone, already scrambling to get where they needed to be. The loss of the three-way hurt Coop’s ball more than the hamstring punches, but he put that aside to get to observation deck alpha along with everyone else.

Observation Deck Alpha was mind-blowing. They’d styled it like an ancient Greek amphitheater. Everything was ornately crafted stone or marble. Even the seats looked cold and uncomfortable, but they looked out onto a thick piece of armorplast and beyond that was the open void of space – or it would be once they exited the Alcubierre Bubble.

The stadium-style seating only sat about five hundred, and since Coop got there later he was forced to stand in the back. Not that it mattered much. No one would be able to see over him anyway, so he leaned against the back wall and let people move around him. He kept his eyes peeled for, <Jean, I’m positive that’s it. Or…maybe not. I know it begins with a J. Is it Jean or Gene?>

Whatever the case he didn’t see her in the mass of people filtering in and mingling. They stood around aimlessly for five minutes before anything happened.

“All hands, prepare for transition in three…two…one…”

Coop watched the armorplast as they went from an Alcubierre bubble traveling faster than the speed of light to normal space travel. Everything in Alcubierre looked like white static. At “three” a tiny black dot appeared in the static and over the next two seconds it rapidly expanded as the liner shed the bubble and popped into normal space.

There was a collective gasp at the transition, and then the rapid return of conversation.

“Lock it up!” A tall woman with SGM insignia on her shoulders marched out onto the stage. “Battalion, Atten-hut!”

A thousand people braced to attention as a man with the golden stripe of a lieutenant commander walked out onto the stage.

“At ease.” A podium rose from the stone and the 2223rd’s commander stopped behind it.

Behind him the armorplast stared to display icons and information. Not only was it a protective barrier between the soldiers and space, but it was also the biggest holo-display Coop had ever seen. He recognized more of the icons from his training, and one stood out beyond all the others.

The theater went silent as everyone recognized the two crash buoys.

“Welcome to York Sector System 1552.” The LCDR’s voice was particularly emotional. “While we were all training, are brothers and sisters in the fleet were out here fighting and dying.” He tapped his PAD and information enhanced on the large display behind him.

DD 547 Barton and DD 783 Nightingale appeared along with a full rundown of their specs. Coop did some quick math and his stomach sank.

“We fought a battle with the Blockies in this system less than a month ago. We lost two destroyers in that battle. Don’t let the politicians or media try to convince you that this was a skirmish, or a tussle, or us and the Blockies just bloodying each other’s noses. This was a BATTLE, and we lost over five hundred spacers and infantry in that fight.” He fell silent and let everyone take that in.

“I’m not showing or telling you this to bum you out or ruin this nice little pleasure cruise we’ve been on for the last few days. I’m telling you this so this battalion is ready to get dropped in the shit. Make no mistake, this is a war zone. We are at war with the Blockies in this sector no matter what the politicians say in New Washington. If you come across a Blockie soldier you will engage and destroy them with extreme prejudice. Am I understood!?”

“Yes, Sir!” Coop winced as a thousand voices laced with anger roared through the enclosed space.

“Good.” The commander looked around and gave his soldiers a nod. “Sergeant Major.”

The woman strode up to the podium and started to run through a basic operations order of what they were getting into. Coop didn’t pay attention to most of it because this wasn’t his battalion, but he paid close attention when they went over the rules of engagement. Those would be universal throughout the sector.

There wasn’t any “only fire unless fired upon” crap. The enemy was defined and easily identifiable. The Blockies wouldn’t hide and neither would the Commonwealth. When they met in battle there would be no misunderstanding who was who.

Coop found himself wanting to go another ten rounds with SSG Hightower. His adrenaline was pumping and he was amped up when they were dismissed a few hours later. They were scheduled to be in the system for a while to drop off two companies to reinforce the brand new FOB Dietrich – named after the fallen task force commander who’d died in the battle.

The extra time gave Coop time to find Jeannette – it turned out that was her name. When he found her, he picked her up, threw her over his shoulder, and marched her right back to his room. She didn’t complain. If anything, the action turned her on even more. The third woman didn’t tag along though. Jeannette wanted him all to herself.

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