Two Worlds – Chapter 71

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Eyes, Right!” Coop heard the command, but he kept his eyes looking straight forward. Only certain people in the formation actually looked to the right on that command, and he wasn’t one of them.

<Why say ‘Eyes Right’ and then not have a quarter of the formation do it?> That thought occupied Coop’s mental bandwidth as Echo Company 132nd Training Battalion walked past the reviewing stand.

There were ten understrength units walking in the graduation ceremony. Each of the ten battalions in the training division had their schedules synched to graduate a specific company at the same time, and today it was all the Echo Companies. Being 2nd Battalion, the 132nd was near the front of the pack. Once GYSGT Cunningham gave the “ready, front” command those who’d been looking right snapped their eyes forward and continued to march.

“Column left, march!” They reached a designated point and made a ninety degree turn.

The marched some more and made another left. Then marched most of the way back down the parade field and made a final left. They’d rehearsed this until Coop could do it with his eyes closed.

“Mark time, march!”

“Company, halt!” The GYSGT yelled and everyone smacked their left foot down and went still.

To their left was 1st Battalion’s Echo Company. Their drill sergeant was a nasty looking tan man who fell somewhere in the spectrum between the GYSGT’s height, and the PO3 Janney’s stockiness. About thirty seconds later, 3rd Battalion’s company came to a stop on their left. They were led by a serene looking black female staff sergeant. That company also had about seventy recruits in it judging by a casual glance.

<Which means they’re either really good, or basic was easy as fuck for them.> Coop would put his money on the latter.

Their Company was sitting at forty-one graduating recruits, which worked out well for organizational purposes. Aaron was still the guide-on bearer standing at the front of the formation with the GYSGT. After that, everyone had been rearranged to look good, just like the GYSGT’s promotion ceremony.

The Company made four even ranks from tallest to shortest; which meant that Mike, Eve, Coop, and the other dude who’d survived the HI enhancements were acting as squad leaders. They marched in the front and looked the most intimidating. Coop hadn’t seen four other HI enhanced troopers in any of the other companies, and no one else had a future Ranger standing next to them.

<Pussies.> Was all Coop had to think about the other, weaker companies.

The other seven companies had to march into the square to get into their precisely drilled locations, which left Coop alone with his own thoughts for several minutes. It was never a good thing, but it was predictable that they gravitated toward Eve. After this graduation ceremony, they’d be receiving their final orders. Most everyone was off to some type of school, but the orders determined when it was, and more importantly when you were going.

Some recruits would leave right away. They’d literally head to the air-buses parked in a lot near the parade field. Others might have to wait a week or more, and they’d get assigned to one of the holding companies; which meant you had to look forward to PT and shit jobs until you left. The lucky ones were those who fell in between those two extremes.

The division commander, a three-striped Captain, in all his infinite wisdom, awarded graduates with a weekend pass. Orders to report to school took precedent over a local pass, but it was still two days off.

And those two days were his last chance to get inside the coolest, sexiest, most interesting girl he’d ever met. The stolen kisses and dry humping that occurred over the recovery week left his balls the bluest of blue and him ready to burst. He’d avoided jerking it in anticipation.

But all of that hinged on the Rangers, the Heavy Infantry school on Mars, and the Ministry of War.

<The odds are not in my favor.> He kept his face straight as the division commander got to his feet and said a few well-scripted words.

There was a small audience of civilians in the bleachers behind the officers. It had to be suburbanites who could afford to travel all the way to the taint of the Commonwealth in the middle of the summer. There wouldn’t be any PHA mommy and daddy Rats in the stands that’s for sure. But there were some more people in uniform. Thankfully, none of them were Eve’s relatives.

<The Chief of Naval Intelligence!> Coop was still mentally freaking out about that. <She’s got to know every detail of my life down to the size of my dick.> He knew people in power knew stuff, and someone like Sonya Berg knew everything.

After the division commander spoke every battalion commander got up and said a few words. They all had different topics like: honor, courage, duty, and responsibility. LCDR Shepherd talked about accountability, which made sense after Davenport’s epic fuckup.

Finally, all the officers stopped using big words and trying to sound inspiring, and it was time for the oath. The captain got back up for that one.

“Raise your right hand and repeat after me.”

Coop did as he was told, and felt the importance of the moment descend on him. <This shits for real.> He took a deep breath to steady himself.

“I, state your name.”

“I, Mark Cooper.” He decided to leave out his embarrassing middle name, Cornelius.

“Do solemnly attest that I will, as in duty bound, honestly defend the Charter of the United Commonwealth of Colonies against all enemies, internal and external throughout the galaxy; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will observe and obey all orders of the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth and the orders of the admirals and officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”

Coop repeated the oath and tried not to stumble over some of the more complicated parts.

“Welcome to the Armed Forces of the United Commonwealth of Colonies.”

There was no cheering, celebrating, or throwing anything into the air. This wasn’t high school. This was the fucking military. Coop just stood there stone-faced. He’d celebrate if he got that pass and that ass. And he’d celebrate with the biggest bottle of booze he could find and a buck-naked Eve.

The civilians clapped and cheered though, but that stopped relatively quickly because this was just the end of the beginning. The real shit was still to come.

The first surprise came when the officers started to depart. GYSGT Cunningham did a crisp about face and told them all to relax.

“Myself and Petty Officer Janney would like to congratulate all of you on taking this first step in your military career. This is something that no one can take away from you. No matter what happens out there you can say that you were a member of Echo Company 132nd Training Battalion, and you earned that chevron on your shoulder.”

Since they were relaxed they all got to look.

<Holy fuckin’ shit!> Coop couldn’t help but light up like a Christmas tree at the sight of the single chevron on his shoulder.

He wasn’t just some dumbass recruit anymore. He was a dumbass Private now, an E-2.

“But that’s not all. Attention to Orders!”

All the new privates had heard that command once before, at the GYSGT’s promotion ceremony, so they all knew what to do. They snapped to the position of attention and fixed their eyes forward.

“The Minister of War has reposed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity and professional excellence of Eve Berg. In view of these qualities and her demonstrated leadership potential as the top recruit of Echo Company 132nd Training Battalion, and dedicated service to the Armed Forces of the United Commonwealth of Colonies, she is, therefore, advanced from Private to Private First Class. Advancement is effective 01 September 2432, Sol Calendar, with a date of rank of 01 September 2432. Congratulations PFC Berg.”

Now there was cheering, and before Coop knew what he was doing he was hugging his old squad leader. “You’re officially the boss-lady now.”

She hugged him back, hard, and gave the rest of the company a little wave with one hand and she blotted joyful tears with another. The two instructors didn’t do anything but watch and smile. Even Janney didn’t look like the sadistic prick they’d known and hated for the last twelve weeks.

“Everyone report back to the barracks by 1400 and we’ll give out your orders. You’re dismissed.” Then the GYSGT and PO3 just walked away and left forty new privates and one new PFC with nothing to do.

“Let’s be smart everyone.” Eve naturally took charge. “Don’t go get wasted, don’t do anything stupid in the next hours. We’re all still on duty. The dining hall isn’t far so let’s all grab a bite to eat and then head back.”

A soldier never said no to food.

The lunch was a bit surreal for Coop and everyone else. They still had to follow the proper procedure in the lines, but other than that they didn’t have to shovel down the food. They could sit, talk, and laugh about all the crazy shit that had happened. Recruits looked on with awe at the newly minted soldiers eating in the dining hall, just like Echo Company had done countless times when they were still lowly recruits.

Eve still kept everyone on time though, and they all made it back to the barracks just before 1400.

“Everyone’s stuff needs to be out of here today.” PO3 Janney stated calmly as everyone filed in. “You cleaned this place spotless last night and this morning, so don’t screw it up for the next company that comes along. Your orders will be delivered to your new PADs in the next two minutes, so I’m going to need everyone to turn in their old beat-to-shit ones now.”

They’d already run back through the CIF at the end of the recovery weak and turned everything in. CIF made sure the equipment was clean before scanning it back into their inventory and later repackaging it for redistribution to the next group of recruits. The only thing they’d been allowed to keep was their PADs, and the new PVTs going into the regular infantry had been ordered to keep their scales. Everyone else had to turn the body armor back in.

Coop got in line, scanned his GIC, and turned in the old PAD to the PO3.

“Thank you.” The petty officer actually thanked Coop.

Coop checked his pulse to make sure he wasn’t dead. Then something hit him. “Petty Officer! Where did your accent go?” He could still here a twinge of it, but it was nothing like the almost unintelligible screaming he’d grown accustomed to.

“You all thought I was some back woods, sister-fucker didn’t you.” The PO3 laughed. “Half of you didn’t even think I had a brain between these two ears, and you unlucky fucks got smoked because of it.”

Instead of being pissed, or feeling betrayed, everyone laughed. That hell was over and they were all shooting the shit now. Someone even asked what the PO3 did before becoming an instructor.

As it turned out, PO3 Chase Janney spent his career before the training center as a crew member aboard a Spyder Assault Shuttle. “I did everything from loading, to making sure marines didn’t get themselves killed on a drop, and when we did drop I was the tail gunner.” He informed. “Had this b-e-a-u-tiful 3mm plasma repeater and I could rain hell down on anyone.”

Coop and the rest of the company had seen one of those plasma repeaters fire in weapons orientation. They were a fucking nightmare. You’d be able to take some hits from a 1mm gun in scales, but a 3mm plasma round could fuck you up good. There was only so much the nanite covered scales and duro-steel underneath could do against superheated energy and its kinetic punch. If you were lucky you’d survived. If your guardian angel was paying attention an HI trooper would come along and blow that gun the fuck up for you.

Coop was so engrossed in the PO3’s stories that he totally forgot about the orders waiting on his new PAD. He broke away from the group around the naval NCO and walked over to his bed. His new PAD didn’t look too much different from his old PAD. That was purely surface level. It was still a little thicker and more durable than civilian versions. This one didn’t have any cracks or build up shit on it from years of getting dragged into the field, and he was sure it had some internal workings that were upgrades to the latest and greatest the military had to offer.

Coop scanned his GIC and opened it up. His user account settings were the same because they were linked to his GIC. First thing he did was log onto his MWFAS account and check his balance. He’d received six payments over the three months he’d been in basic. At an E-1 pay rate, after taxes, that meant he had $6124.98 in expendable income. By Commonwealth standards that was pennies, but for a former Rat it felt like he’d hit the jackpot.

After doing a mental happy dance where he daydreamed about popping a bottle of expensive champagne all over Eve’s naked ass, he logged out and checked his email.

<Moment of truth.> There were a dozen emails to read, but the one on the tops subject line was Orders: Rank, Last Name, First Name, and GIC in bold print.

He opened the digital correspondence and only needed to read the first few lines. <Report time 0800, 03 September 2432.> Coop breathed a sigh of relief at his good fortune. <Two days.> He smiled and turned around to look for Eve.

She’d grabbed her own PAD off her bunk and gone back to the group. She was standing on the edge, reading it carefully, but looked up and met his eyes. They were unreadable and he had no idea what she was thinking until the corner of her lips turned up.

<It’s go time.> Coop could already feel his body reacting in anticipation.

Coop and Eve signed out together for their forty-eight hour pass. If the Staff duty NCO at battalion knew what was going on she didn’t seem to care. They left the training center and found a cheap room in the disreputable town around the base. Cheap meant two hundred bucks a night, but Coop didn’t give a shit. He’d been waiting three months for this moment. He would have given a kidney.

They were barely through the door and Eve was on top of him. It was primal, animalistic, and short lived; but it was a hell of an explosion.

And it was just the beginning.

Eve Berg sucked, jerked, and twerked Coop until his balls looked like shriveled raisins. It was like sticking your dick into a tornado, like humping an avalanche, or butt fucking a volcanic eruption. Eve Berg was a fucking force of nature, and Coop had to pull out every trick in his book to keep up with her. He didn’t even know some of the positions she got him into were physically possible. His mind wasn’t the only thing that was blown.

They didn’t leave their room for those entire two days. They broke the bed and just kept on going. Management was called twice because Eve was a screamer and other guests thought she was being murdered. The room would have looked like a fucking murder scene if you went over it with a blacklight.

On top of the destroying the bed, Coop accidentally put Eve through a wall once. He had her up against it and one thrust too powerful put her finely-sculpted ass right through it and into the other room. That’s about the time the MPs got called, but the two nymphos finished before they opened the door for them.

The MPs didn’t give a shit about two enlisted people fucking, and as long as they paid for the damages they wouldn’t write them up. So Coop and Eve continued their fuck-a-thon until they were both weak in the knees and everywhere else.

“Fuck me?” Coop’s lungs burned like he’d just done the fifty-kilometer ruck march all over again.

“Again? So soon? I thought you needed a minute?” Eve’s own chest was heaving from the sexual marathon.

“You only live once,” he grinned, flipped her onto her stomach and went balls to the walls while smacking her ass like a drum.

It didn’t matter if his tank was dry. He had no trouble getting it up with Eve’s naked perfection within his reach.

When they checked out the damages came to eight grand. They split the cost, both sacrificing two-thirds of their basic pay for forty-eight hours of blissful, tantric nirvana.

<I’d go again if I had the money.> Coop thought as he and Eve walked hand-in-hand back onto the training center and toward the spaceport.

They had the rest of their lives ahead of them and no idea when they’d see each other again.

But when they did it would be time for round two.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 93

Hellgate and a five-man assault team lay prone in the tall grass outside the power plant’s perimeter. It had not been an enjoyable last few hours. Winter was becoming spring so things were starting to bloom back to life, and that included the mosquito population. Even in his full-body costume, complete with his notorious devil mask the retched little insects still got through to bite him.

<It’s a good thing they’re paying me a small fortune. Son of a…!> He slapped the side of his neck forcefully. It caused more pain than the bite had, but he took a small amount of pleasure in pulling his hand away and seeing the smear of blood.

“How much longer?” The team leader asked.

Technically, the jihadist was leading the team, but Hellgate was in charge. He was the only Super in the mix, with the others being assigned to different teams hitting different targets throughout the city. Seif al-Din was confident Hellgate and five battle-hardened men could take a power plant that was still being rebuilt and re-staffed after its last attack.

“We wait for the signal,” Hellgate replied.

It was the correct answer, even if he felt like strangling his daughter for having him sit out here for hours.

The assault team and all the other men Seif al-Din and Damascus had brought with them were already angry that a woman was the initiator of their holy mission. All the waiting wasn’t helping.

The five jihadists were clad from head to toe in black jumpsuits. Over those were tan body armor stolen from American troops in the Middle East. They all carried AK47s with several more banana-looking magazines of ammunition, and a handful of grenades apiece. They looked ready to bring war to the infidels, but it was the satchels Hellgate was armed with that were the real weapon.

To pass the time, Hellgate pulled the pictures out of his pocket again. There was one picture for each location. Three in total. His mission was simple. He needed to teleport in, drop the charges in their assigned location, and get out. All the satchels were on a timed charge, so he only had a minute to get it all done; which was all the time in the world to someone of his skill level.

All of the bombs were being positioned at strategic locations. Their detonation would destroy the power plant…again. And it would fulfill his first task on his way to a seven digit payday.

“How’s it hangin’ down there?” A new voice whispered in his ear.

Hellgate kept his body language neutral as annoyance crept through him. “Everything is going as planned.” He subvocalized into the throat mike he was wearing underneath his costume.

“What?” asked the jihadist next to him.

“Nothing,” Hellgate whispered back, just clearing my throat.

Armsman laughed in his ear. The legendary supervillain was parked several hundred yards behind them in a nice, comfy building. The window was open so he had a clean line of sight, but sitting way back in the room he didn’t have to worry as much about the budding mosquito population in the area.

His job was simple. Make sure that no one stabbed Hellgate in the back. From his vantage point he had the whole team in his sights.

Hellgate felt something vibrate against his side. He reached into the hidden pocket and pulled out the burner cell. It had a new message. He opened it with a press of the button.

GO was written in bold letters.

“Time to cause trouble.” Hellgate stated for everyone’s benefit.

The jihadists gave a loud battle cry, got to their feet, and charged. The front gate, guarded by two armed men was their target. Sustained gunfire cracked through the air as the five-man assault team pumped a hundred rounds into the guard booth and the two men inside it. Immediately, alarms started to wail throughout the power plant, but Hellgate was already inside.

The first room he appeared in looked like some type of control room. There were three men in white collared shirts and ties sitting at control boards when a burst of flame announced the supervillain’s arrival. They all screamed and tried to outrun the growing flames, but none of them made it.

The fourth man, a security guard, ran toward the new threat. Hellgate grabbed his wrist and forced it upward as the guard tried to level his gun. Then the villain’s fist shot forward three times. A three inch knife extended between his middle and ring finger. The small knife plunged into the guard’s neck three times; each time retracting with a spurt of blood. The last stab hit an artery and the gushing didn’t stop. The guard reached for his throat to stop the bleeding, but he was already as good as dead.

Hellgate planted his foot into the guard’s sternum and kicked him away. Then he disappeared in another flash of fire, leaving the guard and technicians to burn.

The second location was empty, either because people were gone because they were following evacuation protocols, or because no one worked there. Hellgate didn’t even know what the large machinery was, but it looked brand new, so he leaned a satchel up against the biggest thing he could find and teleported to the third and final target.

The last target was outside, and easily recognizable. It was the section of the plant that people always thought about when they thought “power plant”. The transformers were connected to tons of wires that branched outward and away from the plant. Hellgate dropped the last and largest satchel next to a big metal box in the center of the space.

<Ten seconds.> He checked his watch and took a deep breath before teleporting away for this final time.

Ten seconds later the mostly reconstructed power plant exploded; plunging the city of Orlando into darkness yet again.

 

***

 

Seif al-Din sat in the back of a heavily tinted van in a parking lot just outside the local airport. It wasn’t a large airport, and the glory of destroying it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as hitting O’Hare outside Chicago or Jackson-Hartfield in Atlanta. But the longtime freedom fighter knew when he needed to manage his expectations. The security and the Hero teams in those cities were formidable and would mitigate any damage.

Orlando was a different story. It was a smaller town with a single team, a school run by retired fighters, and a target rich environment. This was the type of location he should have thought about hitting long ago. He still wished he could get a team or a bomb into Disney World, but the corporate security force would be on high alert once things started.

<My beautiful Fadeelah. I am coming for you.> The man took a deep breath to control himself.

He was nearly overcome by rage every time he thought of his oldest daughter growing up in the west. He wanted to tear, shred, and kill when he thought of the blasphemies they placed in her head. How they taught her to forsake Allah, to forsake her family, and now to be in a school and training to serve within Great Satan itself. It made him sick to his stomach.

<But today that all changes.> He prayed fervently for this day, and now it was here.

His phone chimed softly, a single text with two letters telling him that it was time for his prayers to be answered.

“Allahu Akbar.” He breathed deep and clasped hands with all of the men in the van with him.

They had undergone the proper ceremonies before departing on their mission. They were all prepared to die today.

Seif al-Din kept his eyes on the airport as he stepped out of the van and around to the back. He helped pull several large crates out. He flipped the clasps and pulled the top off to reveal several RPGs and a handful of Stinger missiles. Then he stood back and watched as his men went to work.

Each man from the van grabbed one of the shoulder launched weapons, lined up, and spaced themselves out to give them the best shot at their targets while avoiding any back-blast from the weapons. People in the parking lot were running and screaming away from the righteous men carrying out the divine will. They kept yelling about calling the cops like it would do any good.

They only had to wait for a few seconds before the lights in the airport flickered and died. Planes on the runways ground to a halt as they lost communication with air-traffic control, and the holy warriors took advantage of that. The man on the far right fired first. The Stinger missile shot out and traveled quickly across the airport. One plane had been in the middle of takeoff when the power went out, but it was already in the air, so it kept going…right up until the missile hit it dead center and shattered it like an egg.

The plane broke apart as its momentum pushed it higher into the air for a few more seconds, and then it came tumbling back down in a dozen different large sections. It hit the ground in a residential neighborhood not far from the airport, and the remaining jet fuel exploded leveling several houses.

Seif didn’t watch any of the following violence. He was more concerned with his other soldiers. An RPG round rocketed across the airfield to strike the first plane in the lineup near the cockpit. This plane didn’t explode and break apart like the last one, but its landing gear did fail and it tipped forward to scrape and twist across the runway until it came to a stop blocking anyone from taking off.

Seif turned his attention to the third man who was aiming at the terminal while the second one reloaded. The second one would work his way through the planes on the runways and at the gates until he was out of ammunition. The third and fourth man would do the same to the terminal, with the express intent of kill as many people as possible. They targeted the areas containing the check-in counters first and then worked out toward the busiest gates. They’d done their research, and figured out the gates with flights that departed soon, which would be filled right before boarding.

The fifth man kept an eye on their surroundings. It was his job to give them as much time as possible to complete their mission. So when the first police cruiser came tearing around the corner with lights and sirens blazing it ate a RPG right in its grill. It exploded, killing the officers instantly, and ended up on its side in a burning pile of steel, rubber, and fuel until the gas tank caught fire and it rocked the area with a second explosion.

Seif al-Din barely noticed the second smaller explosion of fire that announced his ride throughout the chaos.

“Boss.” Hellgate walked up next to him and surveyed the damage.

With the devil mask on the terrorist leader couldn’t see the mercenary’s expression, but his body language revealed the man couldn’t care less.

“We need to move to the staging area.” Seif al-Din stated, but turned away from the Super to look at his men.

They stopped their firing for a second to acknowledge their leader. He gave them all a deep bow and clasped his hands in front of him in the universal sign of prayer.

<You will all feast with virgins tonight my brothers.> He felt the mercenary’s hand on his shoulder and they both vanished in a flash of fire. <Now for stage two.>

 

***

 

Damascus stood in the middle of an open field. A major highway was a hundred yards to his right. The minivan he’d rented was sitting on the shoulder as cars blurred by it at seventy miles an hour. But he didn’t pay attention to any of it.

<It’s so hot.> Unlike the rest of his brothers in arms, he was wearing a golf shirt and silver slacks that matched his hair. <It feels like I’m drowning in hot soup.>

Damascus and his men were used to dry desert heat. Humidity was something entirely new and hated by them. <It is always smoldering in the belly of the beast.> He thought as a Florida Highway Patrol car pulled up behind his van and two officers got out.

One went to look at the van while the other headed over towards Damascus. He noticed how the officer rested his hand on the holster of his pistol. A police officer in his homeland would have already had his weapon out and ready to use.

“Good afternoon, Sir. Can I help you?”

Damascus smiled and adopted an American accent. “Just havin’ some car trouble, Officer. Your help would be much appreciated.”

The officer smiled back and took his hand off his weapon.

“I do need to let you know that I’m going to have to give you a ticket for the windows though.”

Damascus face fell in a well-rehearsed manner.

“Sorry.” The officer shrugged. “We allow tinted windows, but those are blacked out. You can’t see inside at all.”

“Ok,” Damascus sighed theatrically. “You’ve got to do your job, I understand that.”

In his pocket his phone chimed loudly. The officer looked at him, and Damascus held up his hands. “Can I grab that?” He asked.

“Sure.” The officer kept a close eye on the silver-haired super as he pulled the slim phone from his pocket.

GO

“Do you have someone you can call to come and pick you up?” The officer asked as he pulled out his ticket pad. “I’m also going to need to see your license, registration, and proof of insurance.”

“No need officer.” Damascus smiled.

The officer looked confused as Damascus hit the send button on a preprogramed number.

The sound of an explosion and cracking concrete sent the officer spinning toward the highway. The highway for about a few hundred yards in front and behind the van looked like someone had popped a giant bubble. The ground had ballooned out as the buried artillery shells exploded: throwing cars, shrapnel, and concrete into the air.

Brakes shrieked as cars came to a halt up and down the highway.

“What the fuck!” The cop yelled already moving back toward the explosions. “Central, I need everything you’ve got to the eastbound rest area north of State Road 434 now. I need EMS, Fire, more units, we need the fucking National Guard. Fucking bombs just blew up the road!”

Damascus saw the differences between American first responders and American soldiers in the first thirty seconds after the bombs went off. First responders zeroed in on the destruction and went to help in any way they could. American soldiers would have focused on eliminating the threat first. It didn’t even cross the police officer’s mind that Damascus was the one who detonated the bombs.

“Sir, stay here!” The cop yelled over his shoulder at Damascus as he sprinted back towards his patrol car.

“Sure thing, Officer.” He hit a second pre-programed number and his minivan exploded.

The cops never stood a chance, and neither did the cars that had been stopped by the earlier explosions. The first explosions had been to destroy infrastructure. The second had been meant to take lives and create a barrier of dead that would have to be crossed by whoever came down the road. It was a psychological warfare strategy as much as a tactical one.

<And there we go.> He heard more explosions in the distance.

He turned to the south and saw a flaming ball of fire falling out of the air. He couldn’t see it but he knew the power was out across the city, but that wouldn’t be noticeable until dark.

<Now for phase two.> He took a deep breath and pulled.

The fire within him was already there so he drew on it while keeping it bottled up. He was like a rocket ready to explode and lift off. He pulled and pulled and pulled until he felt like he was going to burst. Then he exhaled and exploded.

Silver fire washed over everything. It rolled over the highway, burning cars and cooking off the gas in their tanks. It stampeded over the rest area on the opposite side of the road, causing more chain reactions of explosions. People caught in the open were turned to ash, and those in vehicles were roasted alive. The silver flames kept going beyond that and into the residential neighborhoods to the east and west.  It’s initial explosion tapered off after about half a mile, but by then the fire had taken on a life of its own. It continued its rampage through the neighborhoods.

The goal was for it eat away at the area all the way east until it hit Lake Jesup. But it would eat the Spring Hammock Preserve before then and burn down hundreds of homes. To the west, it would get to rampage free after eating homes and breaking into the Wekiva River Buffer Conservation Area. It would grow in intensity and would take a powerful hydrokinetic or a combined interstate force of firefighters to stop it. All of that would drain resources away from the real target.

As Damascus watched it all burn another flare of flame erupted not far away. Seif al-Din and Hellgate appeared. Hellgate’s fire reared up like an angry snake and attacked the silver flames around it. The silver flames replied in-kind and Damascus got to watch a real-life example of fighting fire with fire.

“Good work.” His leader surveyed the destruction with a serene expression. “The other teams report similar success. The city is descending into chaos. And now we must prepare for the counterattack.” He beckoned Damascus closer so Hellgate could grab them both and teleport them to their next location.

 

***

 

All hell was breaking loose back at the Protectorate HQ. Not just in the section occupied by the Hero team and the DVA, but the cops as well.

“We’ve got another call coming in.” An analyst stated. His middle-aged face seemed to have aged five years in the last five minutes.

“Answer it, categorize it, and throw it on the board.” Mr. Morningstar stood like an unflappable pillar in the middle of the storm.

The people in the room drew inspiration from the calm and collected team leader, and that was far more important than any super power right now.

A giant holographic map of Orlando was projected into the center of the room and then color-coded to identify emergency areas. As always, the majority of the map was green, which meant nothing was wrong. A few spots along highways leading in and out of town were amber and red. Amber meaning these were places that needed help, and red meaning everyone’s ass needed to be at that location now.

The problem anyone with a brain was seeing was that there were far too many red zones than there were people to cover them. The small Hero team and the police were trying their best.

“The reports are saying that a group of armed men just stormed the local NBC affiliate and took them over.” The analysts threw another red zone up on the board.

“Get SWAT over there.” Mr. Morningstar was starting to feel the stress even if he didn’t want to admit it and would never show it.

“Sir, they’re fully engaged at the airport. SWAT is pinned down in the parking lot and the gunmen are using human shields. It’s a tactical nightmare. We already have casualties.”

Mr. Morningstar bit down his retort and rethought the plan. “Try and retask a few people when they get freed up. Until then, redirect Galavant some of these interstate hotspots. He can deal with those. Seraphim can take the guys at the airport.”

Currently, the density manipulator was helping move damaged vehicles off the highways, and that seemed to be the best use of him for the moment. It was the first step in getting those roads back open. Step two was getting someone in to fix the huge holes and put out the fires. Seraphim was gathering aerial intelligence, and could be at the airport in minutes.

“Galavant acknowledges. Seraphim’s ETA is three minutes.”

The rookie Hero was literally pulling his weight today.

“Broadcasting was just interrupted at 101.1.” Another analyst said from across the room. Her face scrunched in confusion as she listened to the radio.

“Let me guess,” Special Agent Debora Phillips strode into the office. “The usual death to America bullshit.”

The other woman nodded as Debora walked up to the Hero leader.

“Looks like it’s time to call it in.” The DVA agent took a classic hands on hips pose. “This isn’t some gang retaliation or big bank robbery, this is now officially a terrorist attack.” Her eyes bored into the Heroes. “And if our intel over the last six months is true, then we have a good idea who it is and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Mr. Morningstar took a deep breath and nodded. From the look on the parts of his face not covered by a mask it seemed like the old Hero had been trying to convince himself that Orlando wasn’t up shit’s creek already. That all slipped away now that Agent Phillips had confronted him, and the man seemed to deflate as a result.

“Make your calls, Agent, and I’ll make mine.”

“You heard him people!” Debora yelled into the room. “We are now at threat condition alpha. This is not a drill. Follow your procedures and get ready for a long day. We’re about to get a lot of visitors and they’re going to be eager to help. You get them where they need to go and we’ll all get through this.” She turned back to the room and saw Mr. Morningstar was on the phone getting all the help he could directed to the city immediately.

Now she turned her attention to the board. While she’d been talking two more roads had gone from green to red. It was like Orlando had an angry red ringworm around it. There was no way in and out of the city.

“Local TV is playing the same message as the radio now.” The analyst covering the media announced.

Debora switched on the TV to find a man dressed in black, armed for war, and holding a giant sword speaking in accented English about America’s crimes. She didn’t pay it more than a few seconds of attention. Nothing longer than what it took to confirm that the man fit the profile of Seif al-Din, and that meant he was likely in the city.

“Make sure you call the HCP.” She turned to Mr. Morningstar and pointed at the TV screen.

“Dean.” Mr. Morningstar nodded at her comment and raised his voice to let her know he was on with the HCP right now.

Debora refocused on the board and saw a blue flashing light arrive at one of the red areas. “That KaBoom?” She asked an analyst.

She was familiar with the color-coded identifiers the Protectorate used, but couldn’t remember who was who at the moment.

“Yes, Ma’am. We’ve got audio and video if you want me throw in on the screen.”

“Please.” Debora leaned forward as the scene came to life.

“KaBoom entering the premises.” The Hero’s voice was steady despite the front door being shot up and the unarmed security guards lying in growing pools of their own blood.

“Dispatch, have him move to the control room and stop the propaganda show. They’ll probably be there guarding it to stop us doing exactly that.” Debora asked the mysterious mistress of the Heroes communications network

KaBoom cocked his head slightly as the orders were relayed and directions given. “Acknowledged.” He started to run toward the room, but was careful to check his corners. His kinetic abosobtion would protect him, but he wasn’t invulnerable.

That was quickly put to the test. He stuck his head around a corner and nearly got it shot off with machine gun fire.

“Shit.” He pulled back as tracer rounds lit up the wall bright enough for them to see back at the headquarters. “They’ve set up a strong point at the end of the hall before the control room. I need to find another way.”

The other way turned out to be him getting to a parallel location and going through two walls to ambush them from their supposedly secure side. Terrorists crumbled as he hit them with fists packing the punch of a car going twenty miles per hour. But they got a few shots in. The Hero absorbed the energy and kept moving.

Until he fought his way into the control room. Then the screen went white and they lost all audio.

“Get it back.” Debora ordered futilely.

“We’ve lost all connectivity.”

“The broadcast has ceased and we’re receiving the technical difficulties statement with that annoying whining sound.”

“Dispatch has also lost communications.” That wasn’t good.

“Get EMS there now. And let’s hope the building is still there.” The last sentence was a whisper that only Debora was meant to hear.

They couldn’t lose one of their Heroes so early in the fight. This was just the opening act.

“Ok, shrug it off people. We’ve got bad reception everywhere so don’t let it get to you. Let’s find the next fire and put it out.”

But the truth was they needed more firemen.

 

***

 

John was sitting in his office and enjoying a turkey club with extra crispy bacon when the lights flickered, died for a second, and then emergency lights came on.

<That can’t be good.> The old Hero was on his feet before he consciously knew what he was doing.

“Dispatch?”

“The power plant was just attacked.” The emotionless voice in his ear replied. “Damage is city wide.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“DVA, police, and Protectorate assets are moving to ascertain information. I will keep you posted.”

“Thank you.” John went back to eating his turkey club, while checking the integrity of the HCP systems and watching the news.

The moment the local broadcast cut out he knew something was wrong, and that was quickly confirmed when a familiar voice started speaking.

“You have sinned, America. You have sinned against Allah, you have sinned against your fellow man, and worst of all you have sinned against me.”

John unconsciously shifted into his Iron Giant form. His chair groaned under the increased weight, and the table protested as his fingertips dug into it instinctively.

The last time John had heard that voice he’d been half dead in New York City after losing his entire team and thousands of civilian lives. The phone on his desk started to ring and he hit the speakerphone button.

“Dean.” It was Mr. Morningstar. “We’ve got a problem.”

“I know,” John took a few deep breaths to get himself under control. “I’ll get my people ready, secure the students, and get our VIP to safety.”

“Thank you, John.” Mr. Morningstar’s voice was clipped with stress.

“You’re welcome.” The line was cut and John opened up a new line. “All HCP professors please report to the Dean’s office immediately.”

Robin and Marshall had taken the participating seniors to Intermurals at Lander, so it was only him, Daisy, Craig, Maria, Grace, and Miles. Blake was probably already out there as the city’s on-call healer and Dr. Johnson wouldn’t be much help until after the bloodshed.

He knew his remaining staff would all hear the tone of his voice and know it was go time.

<Now we just need to get a message to Anika.> They needed the ForceOps teleporter to pick her up now and get her to safety.

Removing Seif al-Din’s objective from the playing field was the best way to get him to leave quickly. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to be quiet about it.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Instruction

Gerald stepped around the protective rock and emerged into the middle of an assembly area. Around him dozens of other soldiers occupied their time with assigned tasks or pre-battle rituals. A select few wore meager versions of Gerald’s breastplate. Others wore smaller bits of protection: gauntlets, chainmail made of dull metal, or just a simple wooden shield. Each man was armed and protected with what they’d earned in battle; which meant the thousand men on the mountainside, a full regiment, were a unit that hadn’t seen much action.

<This time is as good as any.> Gerald smiled and approached the sheer cliff at the edge of the mountain.

He eye-balled the drop to the ground at a thousand feet. Not that it mattered if anyone fell from the mountaintop. Every single soldier in this regiment had wings.

This was a regiment of what the younger soldiers called the “Airborne”.

Gerald didn’t love the term but it hit the unit description right on the nose.

“Sir Gerald.” Several soldiers stopped what they were doing, stood, and bowed as he passed.

Gerald waved them back to their tasks. He knew the value of the preparations, both physical and psychological, that the soldiers were engaged in. He didn’t want to disturb them.

But such a disturbance was virtually guaranteed. It wasn’t every day that regular soldiers saw an Infernal Knight walking among them.

Gerald stretched out his own charcoal gray wings to their full width which dissuaded anyone else from approaching. He had better things to do than speak with these soldiers. The general was waiting for him.

The soldiers around him took the hint. They returned to preparing for battle. Most were armed with crude spears or swords. Gerald spotted a small group gathered together who had pikes, battle axes, and broadswords. They were the veterans. Only time in battle could explain the armament.

Gerald watched them a moment longer before continuing to the very edge. There a winged man in a breastplate of Infernal Iron and armed with two short swords that formed an X on his back was gazing out over the desolate plains below them.

“Colonel,” Gerald greeted the regiment’s commander. “I’m on my way to see the General. Any final reports you want me to pass along.”

The Colonel, although technically outranking Gerald, bowed at the Infernal Knight’s approach.

It took something special to be a knight. In fact, there were exactly one hundred within the twenty-six, ten-thousand-man legions of Prince Seere. Gerald was no mathematician but one hundred out of two hundred and sixty thousand made him much more valuable than a single regimental commander.

“Sir Gerald,” the Colonel straightened from his bow. “I believe we have revised enemy strength estimates you can pass along.” He gave the man lying on the ground next to him a kick in the gut.

The low ranking soldier, whose wings were a dusty brown to match the mountainside, didn’t even grunt. He kept his focus on the sights of the long rifle he had nestled into his right shoulder. On the ground next to him were sketches of the battlefield. The paper contained everything from sectors of fire to range markers. The concepts were new to Gerald, but he understood their purpose and their tactical value to Prince Seere’s forces.

“Sir Gerald.” The soldier didn’t look up, but he addressed Gerald with respect. “I’ve revised the estimation of the enemy’s strength, with the input of my fellow snipers, to eight full legions of ground troops. And approximately half a legion of air support.”

Gerald took his eyes off the soldier, who identified as a scout sniper, and looked at the plains below. He drew a sliver of power from within himself and sharpened his vision. In the distance, less than an hour’s march from the mountain pass, was the black, undulating mass of the enemy army.

<An army eighty-five thousand strong.> He was good enough at math to know that was almost a third of his Lord’s total forces.  

To the untrained eye that could cause fear or even panic, but Gerald was a veteran. He took it all in with cold calculating eyes and the certainty of victory. He would not fail.

“Thank you, Colonel. Prepare your men. I’m sure they will be needed soon.”

A cruel, savage grin split the officer’s face as Gerald turned and walked away.

Gerald gave the gathered airborne regiment another glance, but this time he looked past the physical plane. He looked at the infernal power each of them held and what they were doing with it. Most betrayed their battle-naivety by pouring their allotted power into their weapons or defenses. Pumping power into your blade, shield, or body was a necessity for foot soldiers, but it was a death-wish for the Airborne. Gerald looked down at himself and watched as the pulse of his considerably greater reservoir of power was pumped into his wings.

Wings gave a soldier tactical mobility and the high ground, but they were weak, fragile things if not properly reinforced. Since Gerald received his orders to report to the front he’d been pumping power into his wings. By the time he joined the battle they’d be stronger than armor and able to cut and stab better than most swords.

Gerald looked over his shoulder with his extra-sensory vision and gazed into the shimmering veil that was blanketed across the mountainside. His Lord might not be physically present, but he’d lent his power to the battle. The veil warped the world around them and concealed their presence while being undetectable to the enemy. The regiment would have the element of surprise when it sprang to sink its teeth into the enemy.

With a smile similar to the Colonel’s, Gerald looked away, returned his vision too normal, and walked off the opposite side of the mountain. He savored the sensation of falling, of the wind whipping around him and through his short-cropped blond hair. At the last moment he unfurled his wings to catch the updraft. If any of the novices had tried that move their wings would have snapped and they would have plunged to their death. But not Gerald. He easily pulled out of the fall and effortlessly soared over his own army’s encampment toward a large camouflaged tent in the rear.

He pulled up near the entrance and allowed himself to drop the last few feet to the ground. He landed with enough force to shake the earth. In the service of his Lord, Gerald had grown larger, broader, and stronger than humanly possible. With the addition of his full suit of armor, the Infernal Knight looked particularly terrifying to any who opposed him.

That was a gift he savored.

The guards at the tent flap were properly intimidated. They both gulped and stumbled out of his way. Gerald used his wing to push back the tent flap. It was the smart way to go in because he’d rather take a surprise attack to the wing than his unarmored head.

Despite his status, one was never safe in Hell.

“Sir Gerald.” An annoyed voice called out from a mass of armored bodies surrounding a large horizontal map at the center of the room.

Most of the commanders parted before him, like the guards at the entrance, but once he passed through them Gerald came face to face with one of the only people who scared him. The General was bigger and broader than he had been on the first day Gerald met him, but still a foot shorter than the Infernal Knight.

Gerald would never forget his first day in Hell or the Now-General’s unkind words to him. But even more important, he would always remember how his first day of training ended.

 

***

After they’d knelt before their new Lord and Master they marched back through the beautifully carved door and along the entire length of the golden hall. Gerald had eyes for nothing but the man’s head in front of him. He didn’t dare step out of line after the smaller man’s threat. A threat he felt the man would have no problem following through with.

<Something is different.> He thought as the steady thumping cadence of hundreds of feet echoed through the hall.

He’d felt it the moment his lips touched the giant’s feet. <Something has changed.>

Gerald felt more grounded now; heavier and with more substance.

Halfway down the hall the column of recruits was met by two other men. They barked loud, angry orders and the large formation split into three smaller ones. Unfortunately, Gerald’s section still marched under the watchful eye of the small man.

On the far side of the hall stood another set of doors. These doors were unadorned utilitarian looking contraptions. Two large blocks of metal lay across the door, each supported by three giant wheels. It took twenty of the largest men Gerald had ever seen, not including their Lord, to turn the cranks that moved those slabs of metal.

Unlike the rest of the golden hall these doors were midnight black.

The three formations continued their march out of the hall and into the dull light beyond it. Gerald took his first step onto the packed earth and felt all the warmth sucked from his bones. He immediately began to shiver at the sudden emptiness. He looked longingly over his shoulder at the discernable glow of the great hall.

“Eyes front, meat!” The small man snapped at them. Gerald wasn’t the only recruit missing the hall’s heat.

They continued their march through a city of rough huts made of wood and straw. There weren’t many brick and mortar buildings, and they were concentrated solely around the hall itself; which dwarfed everything else in sight.

Gerald looked up into a perpetually gray sky and felt his breath catch in fearful wonder. A tapestry of moving shadows danced across the gray. It was like Gerald was looking through a thin sheet of paper at something above him, but it was so far and so high he’d never be able to reach it. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

If the sky was bad, the sea the city sat next to was worse. The water was dark and thick with foam that hissed unnaturally as it crashed against the frozen shore. A never ending cloud of steam rose from where the sea met the land, casting a barrier of fog that restricted visibility.

It felt like they were on the edge of the world. Only a few steps away from oblivion.

“Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” The small man brought them to a halt in an open circular space in the middle of the city.

He smiled and Gerald felt more aching cold seep into his chest.

“My name is Captain Gaius Icilius. I am your new commander.”

Everyone was too busy shivering to question why this man was their leader.

“You have all been chosen for service in our Lord’s legions. This is a great honor and a privilege. Better the legion than the forges, the farms, or the brothels.” His sneer lingered on a few of the women in the company.

“I will teach you all how to fight. I will teach you how to bring honor to yourself and your unit. I will teach you how to control your power. And I will teach you how to stay alive.” His eyes swept over them cold and dispassionate. “I only ask for your loyalty.”

Gerald couldn’t stop his face from contorting in anger.

<This man wants us to pledge our loyalty to him?>

Gerald was loyal to no man he didn’t trust, much less know, and definitely not to a man who seemed to lead through intimidation.

The Captain’s eyes focused on Gerald, picking him out easily from the crowd.

“You, step forward.” He gestured for Gerald to come into the open space between the rest of the recruits and him. “That’s an order.” He added when Gerald hesitated.

Grudgingly, Gerald stepped into the open area. Everyone’s eyes were on him, judging him.

“Here.” The Captain tossed a wooden spear with a crudely attached blade of metal tied to the tip with chord. “Training begins now.”

The Captain grabbed a spear of his own and advanced on Gerald.

“Parry, parry, thrust, thrust!” The Captain roared, driving his spear forward.

Gerald knew the technique and batted the spear aside and then thrust his own forward. The Captain executed the same parrying. They danced back and forth for a few rounds before the smaller man held up his hand.

“It is simple. React and counter. Understand?”

Heads nodded around them.

“I said do you understand?!” The Captain bellowed.

“Yes, Captain!”

“Good.” He smiled and turned his unkind eyes on Gerald. “Now we fight for real.”

<Parry.> Gerald thought, moving his spear to deflect the Captain’s thrust.

He blocked like he had every other time, but the spear didn’t budge. Instead it shot forward, brushing aside Gerald’s defense, and buried itself deep into his gut.

Gerald screamed in agony as he toppled over, the spear still imbedded in his stomach.

“We fight to win!” The Captain yelled as he removed the spear from Gerald by placing his foot on his heaving chest and pulling.

“Wh. . .?” Gerald tried to question why the man was killing him, but a lungful of blood fountained out of his mouth and cut off his breathing.

He looked down at his wound and wanted to scream. Not only was his blood soaking the ground around him, but his body seemed to be turning to ash. It started to flake away, starting at his wound, and working its way quickly outward.

“Train like your life depends on it and I promise to bring you the honor and respect of the legions. Fail,” the Captain looked down at Gerald with disgust, “and you will suffer.”

With a swift and powerful thrust the Captain drove the spear into Gerald’s heart.

That was the second time Gerald died.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 70

Rear Admiral Hank Nelson

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 The lieutenant wasn’t running, because running would constitute an emergency. While this didn’t fall in that category, it was definitely one of the admiral’s commander critical information requirements (CCIR). The duty officer promptly told the aide about the transmitted data; which at 0200 ship time meant that he was fast asleep when the call came in. He wasn’t asleep now. He was speed-walking to the admiral’s quarters so that the word got passed to him by his aide and not some deckhand in the galley.

The lieutenant had mixed feelings about being an aide. He’d been an XO on a gunboat in this task force and then selected to this “prestigious position”.

<Prestigious my ass.> The lieutenant made it to the admiral’s door, which was guarded by a marine sentry, and made sure his uniform was presentable.

Throwing it on in the darkness of his cabin didn’t always lead to the best results.

The marine, a corporal, eyed him sideways as the officer tried to see his reflection in the polished bulkheads.

“You look good, Sir.” He grunted.

“Thanks.” The lieutenant gave him a grateful smile, took a deep breath, and knocked three times.

“Enter.” The command sounded like a whisper through the armored bulkhead, but both men in the hallway were listening for it.

“Good luck, Sir.” Were the corporal’s last words before his eyes snapped back forward and focused on a spot on the opposite bulkhead.

<Let’s just hope he doesn’t shoot the messenger.>

“Admiral.” The lieutenant announced himself and snapped to the position of attention.

“Hey, Mark. Since you’re here at…zero dark thirty. I’m going to assume that something wicked this way comes.” The admiral placed a marker in the old-fashioned paper book he was reading and popped the cigar out of his mouth.

Naturally, the admiral’s quarters on an assault carrier were spacious. The warships were three kilometers long, and had a crew of over five thousand souls. That didn’t include the brigade of marines it could carry. The admiral also had a ready room right off the flag bridge that he could snooze in, which was still bigger than the lieutenant’s quarters, but whenever he could Admiral Nelson liked to get back to his room.

“Yes, Sir.” The lieutenant didn’t always get the admiral’s quotes, but he got the gist this time. “We’ve got a CCIR .”

“Sleep’s overrated.” The admiral grunted as he hefted himself off the couch. “Let’s get to the CIC.”

The admiral already had his uniform on, which meant that he already knew about the issue, or he slept in it. If the lieutenant had to guess, he’d guess all of the above.

Rear Admiral Hank Nelson, commander of Task Force 33.4, wasn’t a big man. He was an average 170 centimeters tall, average frame, with a face full of sharp features, and close cropped brown hair with a steadily receding hairline. His eyes matched the color of his hair, minus the blue specs, and people almost always missed the spark in them. If the officer didn’t have the four golden stripes of a rear admiral running down his side, then nobody would have given him a second glance.

“Better wake up Commander Patterson.” Nelson sent the PAD message to his marine counterpart himself. “I’m sure he’ll want to throw his two cents in.

The short-tempered marine was more likely to hurl in a buck-twenty, but it was always better for operational continuity if the left hand knew what the right was doing. Even if it was just jerking off.

CIC, the ship’s combat information center, was tucked away in the center of the ship but on the opposite end from the bridge. The flag bridge, where Nelson did most of his work, was between them, so that if the assault carrier was hit by enemy fire they wouldn’t lose everyone in one big bang. The CIC was also the nerve hub, the brain of the ship. Most information requiring analysis went here first before being dissected and transmitted to the bridges. It was the first place to go if you wanted to get straight to the source.

“At ease.” Nelson waved aside the two marines guarding the hatch and made sure everyone stayed in their seats.

Even at 0215, the task force was busy. Nelson consulted the training schedule on his PAD to see that a couple of destroyers were running maneuvers. A pair of battleships were shooting tables to qualify more gunners at the space ranges near the edges of the system, and the assault carrier itself was getting ready to run a battle stations drill that was going to royally piss off a lot of spacers and marines.

“There’s nothing worse in this galaxy than a pissed off Commonwealth marine.” Commander Patterson stomped into the CIC just waving for people to keep their seats.

Unlike the average looking rear admiral, Commander Patterson was a bull of a man. Coming up through Recon special ops, complete with all their enhancements; the 235 centimeter, 190 kilo brigade commander practically had to turn sideways and scrunch down to fit through the door. The commander of the 222nd Infantry Brigade, the Triple Deuce, had all the tact of a bull in a china shop.

Nelson knew that no matter how good the marine was at his job, he probably wasn’t going to get any higher than brigade command. Despite being a little too aggressive at times, Patterson was a damn fine officer; but that didn’t matter. The marine didn’t know how to play the game. Not that Nelson was one to talk. The difference was that Patterson didn’t know how to play, still wanted to advance, and thought he could. Nelson knew how to play, but didn’t give a shit about it. He was happy just where he was.

“Take a seat, Jared. We’ve got a CCIR that I’ll bet you want to hear about.”

The aide winced at the statement, which confirmed that the admiral somehow knew what was going on.

“Gentlemen,” the lieutenant started. One of his duties was to brief the admiral on the basics so he had general knowledge of the entire situation before going into more technical briefings. “At approximately 0147 we identified several FTL signatures beyond the hyper limit. Transmission into real-space at 0155 was immediately followed by a data burst. The FTL drones were from systems 1552, 4648, and 5557.”

A map of the York Sector sprang to life and the systems were highlighted.

“This is the information.”

The information was basic, barebones, and captured from several light minutes away, but it was still pretty clear cut.

“Blockie or Star Kingdom?” The data showed FTL transmission data, multiple signatures, entering the three systems almost simultaneously.

Statistically, that happening at random was impossible, so this was clearly a closely coordinated mission.

“System 5557 and 1552 appear to be Blockie cruiser squadrons. System 4648 is tentatively being classified as Star Kingdom assets. Classification unknown, but judging by known tonnage we’re identifying them as cruisers as well.”

“Huh, well that’s a shit sandwich with a side of turd sauce.” The marine commander eloquently surmised the situation.

It was common practice for starfaring nations to seed systems with FTL drones and fuel caches throughout explored space. The reason for it was simple. Space was huge. You couldn’t put boots on the ground or ships in the system everywhere. You couldn’t even do it in every strategic location, so you did the next best thing. You popped a smart drone in there, programmed it to sense FTL signatures; which no one could hide. Then you had them gather data on whom or whatever was moving through the system before jumping away or going silent. Whether the drone jumps or plays ghost is based on a programed set of priorities. Having the drone jump, and alert the enemy to the fact that they’d been seen was only used for vital information.

Which this was.

Nelson hit a few buttons on his PAD and lines started to crisscross the star map.

Faster than light travel was capable thanks to Alcubierre Drives and Alcubierre Launchers. The drives were on every ship, and the launchers were strategically placed throughout the galaxy. Both pieces of galactic-travel technology created a warp bubble around the ship that pushed and pulled space around the bubble and allowed it to travel faster than light. A launcher made a trip faster than a ship’s drives. On top of providing more powerful bubbles of manipulated space-time, launchers also linked to eachother, so in many cases a ship could travel from one to the other directly.  But both would get you where you wanted to go.

The question then became what was the best way to get from A to B? The answer to that was hardcoded into the basic nature of the universe.  Stars were massive balls of superheated gas and plasma with a tremendous gravitational field. That field made planets rotate around them, creating solar systems. What that gravity also did was create warp valleys. These valleys were the lanes between two points of increased gravity. Thus, the valleys between stars were literally the FTL highways that could be linked together into a galaxy-wide travel map. All you needed was the data and the math and you could find the best way to get from A to B anywhere in explored space.

And that’s what people did. Navigators plotted course through these interconnected warp valleys to get from system to system safely and quickly.

Militarily, what that information gave the Commonwealth was the most likely avenues of approach for an enemy fleet to invade a star system. Militaries seeded drones at specific locations along these routes in the hopes they’d gather intelligence if the enemy dropped out of FTL in a system to refuel the exotic matter in their ships’ drives.

The enemy could use a launcher, but unfriendly nations didn’t make it a habit to give away the system specific data and codes necessary to calculate the complicated launchers’ FTL trips. Since New Lancashire was a recently terraformed world, and security had been tight from the start, an invasion launched by an Alcubierre Launcher was unlikely.

If someone was going to attack New Lancashire then that only left jumping with ships’ drives, and a ship’s drive’s fuel requirements greatly reduced a fleet’s range and reach. Plus, trips with drives required calculations where navigators could only plot a few systems ahead. It could turn a trip that would normally be a few hours into a few days or even weeks.

Nelson and Patterson, having spent decades in the Navy, knew things were a little more complicated than that. One of those frequent complications to FTL travel popped up in York Sector systems 1552, 4648, and 5557. Those three systems were junction systems: systems where even ships that were traveling by launcher had to drop out of FTL and reorient because their valleys didn’t quite line up with the rest of the valleys. It was the same as one of those old-fashioned big circles with gaudy monuments in the center where you had to drive into it, sort out where you were going, and then continue on. It was simple doing that on a planet, but when dealing with FTL, where a misplaced decimal point could drop a thousand people into a star, you needed to drop out and recalculate.

“So the Blockies are blockading these two junction points.” Probable courses were plotted and detailed what Nelson thought was happening.

One of the junction points was the main way into Blockie controlled space. So they’d effectively created a buffer along the most likely avenue of approach an enemy would take to get in.

Nelson had already planned for that, and had fuel caches lined up to bypass the junction, but the Blockies would likely have their own drones watching for just that. Some of the caches might already be lost, but that was a long shot. Fuel caches were hidden in hollowed out asteroids and fixed with a simple STRATNET beacon that only pinged when it sensed a Commonwealth warship in the vicinity.

But the bottom line was it was going to cost too much in fuel and time for Nelson to get his task force around the junction with his current resources, which was the whole reason the Blockies were parking a cruiser squadron at 5557 in the first place.

The one in 1552 was a different story. 1552 was a critical junction leading into Commonwealth space, and their current supply line ran right through the system. Which meant the chess game was on and the Blockies had made the opening offensive move.

“When is our next deployment run due?” Nelson was thinking strategy and counterstrategy.

How big a force could he dispatch to deal with the Blockies? Where should he pull them from? Where would the Blockies likely counterattack? Why were they being aggressive in the first place? What was the Star Kingdom up to?

It was his job to consider all of them.

“Three days, Sir.”

Nelson was quiet for a few more minutes before he formulated his decision.

“We need to send a message.” He nodded to himself and the holo. “The Blockies can’t be allowed to stick their dicks into our space without consequences.” He pulled up an order template and started to input the information. “Immediately cancel the qualification tables for Lancelot and Galahad.” He identified the two Knight-Class battleships on the edge of the system. “They are to report to the launcher with all due haste, resupply, and make an immediate jump to System 1552. Once they arrive they are to retake the system and hold it until the latest batch of deployment equipment and personnel pass through. Then I want two destroyers to rotate on picket duty through the system until relieved. Jared,” he turned to the marine, “I need a full battalion of your ass kickers ready to go in the next few hours.”

“I’ve got a battalion stationed at the launcher per doctrine.” The marine commander looked at his own PAD. Lancelot and Galahad have six companies of marines between them, so I’ll pull four from the launcher and take two from here and two from Lancashire’s planetary defense base to replace them. We’ll rotate them back into ops once the mission is over. And I’ll make sure the two picketing destroyers always have at least a company between them to deal with anything that might pop in uninvited.”

“Sounds good to me.” Nelson had already dispatched his own warning orders to the battleship captains, and now his attention was back on the holo map. Specifically, System 4648.

“Lieutenant. What do you think the Star Kingdom is doing?” Nelson posed the question to the young officer.

“Sir, they’re mirroring the Blockies move, and reacting to protect their territory. 4648 is a major junction into their territory; one of two to be specific.”

“You’re right and you’re wrong.” Nelson grinned at the surprised lieutenant. “You’re right that they’re defending their territory, but it’s not a reaction.” The admiral waited for the lieutenant to catch up. “The data coming back indicated nearly instantaneous movement on the three systems, which meant the Star Kingdom knew about it and gave their OK. So, in other words, they just gave us the finger while still not formally taking sides.

“Shit.”

“Shit is right.” The admiral didn’t want to fight a war on two fronts, because he’d lose.

“This shit is all Berg’s fault. She just had to insert an agent without telling anyone. Then the fucker gets caught and gets his hand chopped off.” The marine scowled. “It should have been his balls.” The last comment was only a murmur.

<Berg did screw us.> Nelson was still pissed about decisions being made in his AO without his go ahead. But Naval Intelligence always played their own game and told field commanders to shove it if need be.

“We need to kick up our diplomatic efforts.” Nelson decided. “In light of this new information we can’t be hands-off anymore.” He looked over at the lieutenant who looked a little pale. “Get someone from the diplomatic corps in to meet me today. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 69

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 < “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Sun Tzu, Ancient Chinese Warrior.>

< “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States of America.>

< “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” James “Mad Dog” Mattis, General, United States Marine Corps.>

< “Fuck the big stick, just kill them all.” Unknown General during the Last Terran War.>

Coop scratched his head with one hand as he put down his PAD with the other. Both felt like they’d been rolled over by an old-fashioned car recently. Everything about him ached, and the drugs they were giving him only did so much. Then, just to be assholes, they were already weening him off them.

It had started off ok. He’d come out of surgery just fine. He’d lived, which was more than could be said about one of the other guys who was going heavy infantry. Eve and Mike made it through too, but Eve was still out. She’d had a lot more done to her than Coop or Mike.

It was about the time Coop regained consciousness that he was introduced to the wonders of nerve blocking. Nanites had infiltrated his nervous systems and shut down all feeling below his neck.
The docs said he was being paralyzed for a good reason. He could get himself and others hurt if he made any sudden movements, and that would be an egregious waste of taxpayers’ dollars. So he spent a full day doing nothing but looking at a holo screen above his head. If he wasn’t able to change the channel with voice commands he would have gone insane.

At the end of the first day the Doc had verified that the enhancements had “set” enough that they could unblock down to the waste. Coop immediately regretted her decision. Dull throbbing pain like a full-body migraine permeated everything. He hit the button for painkillers until he reached his limit, and then he just had to suffer.

GYSGT Cunningham came to visit him during that time.

“I know it fucking sucks, Cooper. But you’ve got to suck it up. I’ve been where you are, more than once, and I’m telling you that in another twenty-four hours the nanites will have taken care of most of the pain.” Then the woman did the unthinkable. She sat with him, held his hand, and helped him ride out the worst of the pain.

In the end she was right. A drug-induced sleep later, and the pain had subsided. He was still as sore as a two dollar whore after a gangbang, but he didn’t want to put himself out of his misery anymore.

He was still bedridden for another forty-eight hours, so all he had to keep him occupied was the holo and his PAD. He wished the cubes were lined up so he could see into the other operating rooms, but they were lined up in a row, and all he could see were the other recruits getting released from their little cubicles looking like a million bucks.

He watched the holo as long as he could, but the fake reality shows just made him want to kill something after the first hour; so he decided to read.

Coop was not a reader. He didn’t read his textbooks in high school. He’d never read any of the classics, and he didn’t read for fun. He had read multiple field and technical manuals, but that hadn’t been by choice.

“Check out The Modern Warrior,” Eve suggested over their video chat.

Coop was sorry to even think it, but Eve looked like shit. Her beautiful face was scared and swollen from the surgery, and she had some trouble talking. He didn’t say anything though. He knew modern medicine would have her looking a hundred percent in a few days and he didn’t want to ruin his chances.

But he did take her reading recommendation.

He really loved the quotes scattered throughout the book, and was smart enough to notice a pattern in them; which was a central theme of the book: War had grown less civilized over time.

“So this Tzu guy is all about outthinking your enemy. Then Teddy, who seems like a real badass, was all about being ready to throw down if needed. Same with this Mad Dog general. A general is an admiral today.” Coop clarified as he explained it all to Mike. “But just about everyone after Mad Dog just wanted to kill everyone else; no quarter, no surrender, just kill them before they kill you.”

“That’s deep.” Mike lived up to his reputation as a man of few words.

“Yeah, the whole book defines a modern warrior ethos, and compares modern soldiers to the generations that came before us.” Coop lay back in his bed.

“What they say?”

“That we’re the biggest, best equiped, most bad ass motherfuckers ever to kill other human beings in the history of mankind.” Coop grinned. It wasn’t a direct quote, but that was the gist of it.

“And now we’re HI, the biggest and baddest of them all.”

“Bring the Hurt.” Coop replied with the motto of their new branch. The GYSGT had made them commit it to memory before they went in for surgery.

On the fifth day, Coop, Mike, and Eve were certified fit to get out of bed and receive a post-surgical physical.

<Talk about fucking surprises.> Coop got out of bed, slightly crushing the handrail, and found himself looking down at everyone in the cube.

He hadn’t noticed it while he had most of his nerves blocked, or when he was lying down, but he had been changed. The thought made him a little light-headed, but he caught himself before he fell.

“I’m good.” Coop waved off the advancing, concerned nurses. “Just do what you gotta do.” The last thing he wanted was to be forced back into bed.

“Recruit Cooper, Mark, GIC TBCD0425241412631, Heavy Infantry enhancement procedure post-op one.” A young doctor announced to the cube, which immediately began to record the physical.

They started with simple stuff: height, weight, heart rate, blood pressure, hearing, eye sight, motor reflexes, all the stuff Coop would have been exposed to if he’d ever seen a doctor regularly as a kid growing up.

“Height, two-hundred and thirty-one centimeters.” Coop’s jaw nearly dropped at that one.

<What the fuck did they do to me?>

“Weight, two-hundred and two kilograms. Heart rate, fifty-eight beats per minute. Blood pressure one-twenty over eighty.” They put headphones on him and made him look at a holographic chart for the next few tests. “Hearing and eyesight are two times human standard.” Which meant he could see and hear things twice as good as a normal human.

They did the old smack you in the knee to see it jerk exercise too. Except, they used a large metal hammer to do the smacking and Coop nearly put an ill-placed cart through the polyplast wall when he hit it. On top of that, he barely felt the cold metal table striking his shin at all.

He was definitely tougher than any human had a right to be.

“Your epidermis is harder, just like your bones are denser and your muscles thicker. We grew you to accommodate the changes, and so you can adequately fit into the armor you’ll be wearing.” Despite more than doubling his weight and growing just shy of fifty centimeters, his physique hadn’t changed as much.

Coop had entered basic thin with the wiry muscles required to survive in the PHA with little food. Since getting his ass schooled by PO3 Janney and GYSGT Cunningham on a daily basic he’d put on a good bit of sculpted muscle. He was no longer thin, but had an athletic build with clearly defined muscles. The surgery didn’t bulk him up to look like a linebacker. He was still Coop, just taller, stronger and tougher than ever before.

<Coop 2.0.> He thought with a grin as he flexed his fists. He felt powerful.

“You’re green across the board.” The doctor concluded after doing everything including requiring Coop to turn his head and cough. “Tomorrow you’ll start to learn your new strength.”

Time, more nanites, and a meal full of special supplements had Coop’s recovery progressing nicely by the next morning. His body still felt like he had a giant muscle pull, but it was fine if he sat still. Unfortunately, that was exactly what the doctors were not going to let him do.

Half the day he spent alone running through ordinary activities. Simple things like physically opening doors, using a PAD, and shaking another person’s hand were done over and over until he’d instilled some muscle memory into his new body.

He had to look at the world in a whole different way. Like everything was fragile. He couldn’t do a firm handshake with anyone unless they initiated it and he felt their own increased strength. If he tried to be macho, or wanted to prove his toughness, he would grind the poor bastard’s bones into powder. Same with opening an old-fashioned door. He had to do it slow and gently or he’d rip the thing right out. What was most annoying was using utensils when he was really hungry. He stuck three metal forks through a polyplast table before he got pissed and smashed it in half with one fist.

They’d had to talk him down from breaking more things after that.

Then the GYSGT walked in, told him to stop being a pussy and figure shit out. Coop almost let his power go to his head, but he checked himself. She was HI, and a Ranger, so she could still whoop his ass.

What really helped was seeing Mike and Eve in what amounted to a physical therapy center. Mike was just fucking huge now. He had to be two hundred and fifty centimeters. He’d already been big, now he looked like he didn’t need an armored suit to take down whoever the fuck he wanted. But he still had the same cool and collected silent-man demeanor. Coop shook his hand and felt normal for a brief moment.

Then he saw Eve.

Her facial scarring wasn’t totally healed yet, but it somehow made her even hotter; that and her new hairdo. Half of her head had been shaved, so she looked remarkably similar to the GYSGT. She looked dangerous and sexy.

<I guess the half-shaved head isn’t a fashion statement or against regs.> Coop thought as he saw the scarring on her bare scalp.

She was bigger too, but still about seven centimeters smaller than Coop. Honestly, between them nothing much had physically changed.

“You look good.” Coop complemented her lamely as the PT assistants came out to run them through some range of motion exercises.

“I feel great.” Eve settled into the routine like some yoga master. “You look good too.”

Their light flirting ended there, but it picked up every day after that. Their training slowly progressed from simple stretching, to light resistance, to full-on strength training, and cardio workouts.

They spent a week doing those workouts, and Coop felt like a god.

He could run a kilometer in a minute. Eve was a couple seconds faster and Mike did it in about a minute-ten. Coop could squat, bench, and press multiple tons. Naturally, Eve was a bit weaker, but Mike benched three reps at forty-two hundred kilograms on his last workout and was squatting close to sixty-five hundred.

The other recruits looked on with awe and fear as Eve, Mike, and Coop blew them away at everything. For the navy pukes it was fun. They took bets on who would beat who at something. They laughed and joked and wanted to pal around with the heavies.

It was a different story for the normal infantry grunts.

They looked at the heavies with a mixture of respect and fear. They watched, learned, and hoped they’d never have to face a heavy in combat. Because if they did, there was no question in their minds they were going to meet their maker.

All of that was an afterthought to Coop. Partially because he was too busy being awesome and sneaking kisses with Eve.

<About fucking time.>

They still had a little time left and Coop was going to make the most of it.

Previous

A Change of Pace – Chapter 92

Seth walked out of the classroom massaging his temples. He scooted to the side so the rest of the class could exit. He leaned against the wall and savored the cool chill than ran through him when he pressed his head against the wood.

<Fuck me, that sucked.> Mathematical equations were still dancing through his head, so he shook it to dislodge them. That only succeeded in getting another spike of pain driven into his brain. <But that was the last one.>

It was only Thursday, but he was now officially done with his freshmen year finals. At least on the regular school side of things. As far as the HCP was concerned he had no idea. He’d gone through three trials already. The first was the drunk guy on the lawn scenario. He played it cool, shot the shit, and simply talked the guy down and back into his house. The cops ended up writing him a ticket for breeching of peace, but that was it.

The second trial was the classic Hero vs. Villain test. Both the heroes and villains were supplied by HCP students, but that didn’t ruin the show. Every student faced off against the student just above or below them in the rankings. As the number ten ranking he took on the number nine ranking Freshman, Anika. He fought well, but there was a reason she was number nine and he was number ten. They destroyed a building in the process, which was going to hurt both their grades, but she came out on top. He still felt the phantom pain in his jaw where she’d shattered it.

The third trial, the most interesting one in his opinion, was the ambush trial. Ten soldiers in black armor, black masks, and black weapons jumped out of a van while he was walking around the town and tried to abduct him. Looking back on it, he could tell the purpose of the test was to see how someone reacted when faced with overwhelming force and no time to plan.

His solution was to become a living inferno. The soldiers shot him with stun rounds, which didn’t do shit against his flaming skin. Since they were shooting at him, and he was a Hero in uniform according to the scenario, that constituted using extreme force in his opinion. He threw a car at the men with hurricane force winds, blasted them with fire, and wrapped one up tight in a section of asphalt for questioning. The armed men were duplicates that dissolved when they were injured, which had been briefed to him during the fight; so he didn’t kill someone and have to live with that on his conscience.

He wasn’t really sure how he did on that final. He eliminated the threat by fighting into the ambush, which he knew was the right thing to do. He even managed to capture one of the duplicates for interrogation. He thought he got it right, but Coach Meyers just told him to get back to studying after he was done with no indication of his performance.

Since it was Thursday, and the week was coming to a close, there couldn’t be more than one of two trials left.

<Liz is going to be pissed.>

They’d made plans to get away to Cabo for a few weeks right after their finals were done. She was oddly persistent that they leave right away. He was on his way to meet her for lunch, and he knew she wouldn’t be happy that he had to sit around until midnight on Friday to make sure he had nothing left to do for the HCP.

He picked his head up off the wall. It no longer soothed the headache wracking his brain. He rubbed his eyes practically feeling the bags underneath them. He was exhausted. He hadn’t slept in a day, and all he wanted to do was go on summer break.

<Just one more day.> He pumped himself up and started the walk across campus to the dining hall.

He made it a hundred feet before his phone went off.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he groaned as he fished it out and saw the blocked number.

“I certainly am not shitting you, Mr. Abney,” Coach McMillian’s voice stated on the other end.

<How…? Never mind, I don’t even want to know.> Seth was too tired to know how the close combat coach was watching him right now.

“Please report down to the city. Your fourth and final trial begins in twenty minutes.” The coach hung up without another word.

“Here we go again.” Seth’s gave his whole body a shake to wake himself up.

<On the bright side, I should be able to leave with Liz soon after all.> He held onto the kernel of motivation as he sprinted out of the building and toward the nearest lift, which wasn’t close at all.

He made it down, into the HCP, into the locker room, into his black uniform, and into the waiting room with just enough time to catch his breath. Normally, he’d make that run no problem. But he’d gone straight from his last HCP final to his calculus final, and now he was here.

<It’s all part of the test.> There was no other purpose to getting a human being so exhausted.

“Dispatch.” Seth fit the earbud into his ear. He’d been instructed to keep it safe after the first trial. “What’s the situation?”

He stifled a yawn as he stood in the waiting room. All the tunnels around him were dark and giving no indication where he needed to go.

“Wait a second, Abney. Backup is arriving.” There was a mischievous undertone to the man’s voice that Seth had come to fear.

<Backup?> Seth didn’t have to wait long as the large elevator down to the underground city opened and Anna Fletcher stepped out.

“What the fuck?” The volatile electrokinetic wasted no time in making the situation awkward. “What is pretty boy doing here?”

“Ahh, you think I’m pretty.” Seth grinned, and she flashed him the finger.

“The situation is as follows.” Coach McMillian began and they both shut up. “Approximately twenty minutes ago a peaceful demonstration by Humanity First activists turned violent.

“Fuck me sideways,” Anna exhaled. They could both see the issues of an anti-Super group suddenly being confronted by two Heroes.

“So far the riot is limited to one street with approximately forty rioters. Your job is to contain the situation and neutralize any threats until the police force arrives. They are five minutes out. Any questions?”

A tunnel lit up and an exit with their names on it. They both started running.

“Any weapons?” Anna asked.

“A few rioters are armed with baseball bats. They broke into a liquor store along the street and have looted it for booze, so expect some Molotov Cocktails.”

“No problem there.” Seth shot a grin at Anna. “This should be a piece of cake.”

The exit door they were looking for wasn’t far, which meant they were going to get dumped right in the middle of the city.

“Here’s the plan.” Anna stopped at the armored hatch to catch her breath. “We go out there tell all these bitches to keep their panties on. If they don’t calm the fuck down, then I’m going to taze them all.”

“Is that going to work?” Seth wasn’t questioning her ability. He’d seen her in action before. He was more concerned about how the plan would affect their grade.

“Sure it will.” She gave Seth a pat on the cheek that was a half-pat, half-slap. “Don’t worry playboy. I’ve got this.”

She pushed open the door and Seth followed her into the lobby of a building. They couldn’t see the riot when they pushed through the door, but they could hear it. Angry yells, the sound of glass breaking, and the wrenching of metal that he assumed was them trying to flip a car. They had to be right outside the building.

Anna didn’t stop. She kept on going right through the building’s front doors and into the street. Less than fifty feet away, the mob of forty people was doing exactly what Seth thought they were doing.

But that all stopped when they saw two black-uniformed people in masks step out of the building. Every head in the group turned toward Seth and Anna, and they all looked pissed.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Anna took a step forward and put her fists on her hips in a power pose. “Stop breaking shit!” she yelled, which surprised everyone including Seth. “This is other people’s property you’re damaging. Whatever it is you are protesting about, I’m sure that person’s car and that person’s storefront didn’t do anything. All you’ve done is take away someone’s ability to provide for themselves or get from point A to point B. What you are doing is not helping your cause. So, cut it out, stand down, and wait for the cops to get here.”

<That wasn’t half bad.> Seth was surprised Anna had a speech in her that wasn’t full of four letter words.

The rioters seemed surprised too, but that only lasted a few seconds. Then the scowls were back.

“Mind control!”

“Kill the Supers!”

“Stop the oppression!” Were the first couple of things Seth heard before the first bottle of booze with a flaming rag in it was tossed in their direction.

<Here we go.>

The bottle fell about ten feet short of them. It exploded on impact, but didn’t get any closer. Seth caught the fire and redirected it back toward the rioters. His goal was containment not injury. He collected the other fires that were burning on the block and added their fuel to his fire. He drew a giant circle with the fire around the rioters and slowly started to tighten it, forcing them together into a tight space, and an easier target for Anna.

“Demons!” Several people screamed as they scrambled backward away from the flames.

“Now it’s all you, Anna. Light’em up.” He saw her grin behind her mask.

Seth could feel the static electricity building in the air. The power in the nearby buildings went out as the electrokinetic drew from other sources. Sure, she could do it from whatever internal battery her power gave her, but why waste energy when there was plenty around to spare.

“Last chance!” She yelled at the crowd. “Settle down, pop a squat, and wait for the cops or things will get interesting.”

“Bitch!” Was the most common response.

“Oh well, I tried.” Anna sighed.

Then someone shot Seth.

He could tell it wasn’t a real bullet because the HCP never would have allowed that, and it didn’t penetrate his uniform. It was a rubber bullet, but they still hurt like hell.

Seth took it in the shoulder, felt something crack, fell backward, and lost his grip on the fire. Without him holding it in place it went out of control. Thankfully, he had enough foresight to blast it all away before he barbequed the rioters alive. But that only set them free.

They cheered. Screamed, “Down with the tyrants!” And charged.

“Idiots!” Anna yelled, grabbing Seth by his uninjured shoulder and dragging him behind the cover of a car.

Another rubber bullet stuck the vehicle with a loud SNAP.

“Sniper.” Anna popped her head up for three seconds to take a look and then ducked down just as another CRACK echoed through the air and they heard the whizz of the bullet flying overhead. “You keep the rioters contained and I’ll get this bastard.”

“What?” Seth blinked through the pain radiating through an entire side of his body, but Anna didn’t wait.

She threw a bolt of lightning into the air. It cracked loudly, triggering a primal urge in the human brain to get down, and she used that moment to sprint for a nearby office building.

That left Seth alone and only about thirty feet from the recovering rioters.

<Fuck this!> He was tired, hungry, and now he was pretty sure his shoulder was fractured. He was done with this shit.

“Dispatch, what’s the structural integrity of the city? Are buildings built to withstand a certain category of earthquake? Are we on any major fault lines?”

“Um…” Coach McMillian actually sounded uncertain. “No, but remember, Abney, you are in an underground city. So don’t bring the place down on top of us. I’ve got summer plans.”

“Understood.” Seth winced as he moved to get a better view of the charging mob.

They were only twenty feet away.

<Now or never.> He grinned, then grimaced, then drove his uninjured fist into the street.

The road split and erupted like it had been hit by a Norse god’s hammer. The angry yells turned into frightened screams as the road started to fall away. But it wasn’t wholesale destruction, Seth had a plan.

He could feel the earth through his power and occasionally popped his head up to see what was going on. Just like with the fire, he was using the rapidly deteriorating street to corral the rioters together. They screamed, pushed each other, and a few almost died as he drove them into the center of the street.

“Ok now the hard part.” Seth had to really focus now. It was a hell of a lot easier to destroy than to build.

He stopped the rapid decay of the road and started to stabilize it. He glimpsed at the panicked rioter’s location again and put the final touch on his plan. The earth gave a final rumble and then was still.

Seth looked up again to see his handiwork. Most of the road was cracked, broken, and would take some major work to become passable again. The one completely intact part was a large circle that the hyperventilating rioters were cowering on. Around them the road had completely fallen away leaving a twenty foot drop over a space about ten feet wide.

“Mission accomplished, Dispatch.” Seth grinned at the display.

He’d successfully, and by himself dug a deep trench around the rioters that they couldn’t jump over or climb out of.

“But be advised, Anna is still hunting the sniper that shot me.”

As if on cue there was a scream, and a man in black fatigues exploded out of a third story window. He limbs flailed wildly as gravity got a good hold on him and pulled him down the thirty feet to land face-first on pavement.

“All clear, Dispatch.” Anna was breathing hard. “Fucker put up a fight, but I took care of him.”

Seth could hear sirens now. It was hard to believe less than five minutes had passed. The adrenaline rush started to wear off and he felt bone-tired all of a sudden. All of the rioters and the probably dead sniper flickered and then vanished. They were never more than summoned illusions.

“Good work, team. On behalf of the entire West Private University HCP staff I want to congratulate you on the completion of your freshman year. You are now released for the summer. Your final grades will be posted in a few weeks and only then will you be invited back for sophomore year if you make the cut. You will hear from us either way, and if you are not invited back then you will have to make an appointment with Professor Livingston to get your memories wiped. If this is the case do not try and avoid the situation. We will come to your house, or hunt you down, either one if fine by me.”

It was a bit of an ominous goodbye speech, but after Seth’s performance in his trails he was sure he was going to get one of those twenty-eight sophomore year slots. But he’d think about that later. All he wanted now was to shower, take a nap, and then meet up with Liz to enjoy their vacation.

<Shit, Liz!> He was supposed to meet her for lunch with Becca and Anika, and had totally forgotten to call and cancel. <Do I still have time to make it?>

He was walking back into the building that held the sealed hatch back into the HCP when the lights all around him flickered.

“We’re done, Anna. Stop fucking around.”

“Wasn’t me.” She was looking around.

The lights flickered again and then died. They were immediately replaced by flashing amber warning lights.

 

***

 

Lilly appeared in a blast of darkness. Any other time it would have been conspicuous, but in the middle of the night under an overpass it wasn’t. The headlights of passing cars speeding by didn’t even come near the concealed positions her and her guest had chosen. The bearded man stumbled a bit and emptied his dinner on the concrete.

<Pussy.> Lilly shook her head and looked at their newest target.

Step one of the plan was disrupting and cutting communications. The jihadists had already planted multiple bombs at local T.V. stations. They’d back-doored into some systems and would pirate the signal from a second location when the time was right. There wasn’t a lot of manpower involved in step one aside from a team that could respond to any threats by the authorities to stop the terrorists from getting their message out. Most of that team consisted of armed humans, but there were a few Supers attached.

Step two, what they were working on now, was demolishing transportations infrastructure. The overpass they’d appeared under was the target. A few well-placed explosives and the bridge would collapse onto the road below it. It would make roads inside and out of the city impassable, and was the last of a layered approach the terrorists were taking. Anyone trying to get a vehicle into the city would face many obstacles along the way. It was designed so the only way in was to go into the vegetation, or to fly stuff in.

The terrorists had that planned out too. An armed team was was going to hit the airport. They’d hired a mercenary strongman to rip up train tracks when the time was right, and Damascus was going to set the world on fire. Orlando would effectively be cut off from large scale assistance for a little while. It wouldn’t stop the Heroes, but this way they didn’t have to worry about the Feds or National Guard.

<It really is brilliant.> She begrudgingly admitted. <After a few days it will look like New Orleans after Katrina. Give it a week and I bet we have full-scale warfare going on over food supplies. The Army is gonna have to work to take back the city.>

Lilly wondered how the weakened Fist would deal with all the newfound freedom.

<Focus,> she reminded herself as she kept her eyes out for any trouble.

The man she’d teleported rigged a rope up to the overpass and began to pull himself up into the darkness. Fifteen minutes later he’d placed the charges in the places where they would do the most damage, and shimmied back down to the ground.

“Done?” She asked.

The guy looked offended at being addressed by a woman, but that didn’t stop his eyes from tracing her body. Not that it mattered. She was loaded for war and it was tough to see much past the body armor, grenades, pistols, and big-ass rifle she was hauling around with her everywhere.

It had been a few days since she’d talked with her father and Uncle Armsman back at their underground mansion, and they’d been working pretty much nonstop since then. She’d been able to take a catnap here and there, and eat takeout, but she smelled ripe and really needed a shower.

“Wraith?” A quiet voice pinged in her ear. It was the private comm system she had with her father and uncle.

“Yeah,” she subvocalized the response so the goon didn’t know she was talking to someone.

“We’ve finished rigging the water authority, internet servers, and the team is in place to take the power plant.

“Ok.” Lilly sounded like she was clearing her throat.

“All three stages are a go. The Money wants us to stand down until tomorrow and get some rest. Then you’re to get in position and get the target.

“Got it.” She cut the connection.

All three stages of the grand plan, all the destruction, all the death, all of it was merely a distraction for Lilly to get the target. Everything was planned out so she would be free and clear. They had the safe house ready to go, and Lilly had been there, so it was a simple teleport away. All the action was taking place far away from the school, so no one got suspicious. Thanks to the plans she’d stolen, they knew all about ForceOps’ own contingency plan, and she was prepared to deal with it.

Everything was planned out meticulously. All she needed to do was kick it off.

Lilly pulled out her phone and launched identical text messages to Becca and Anika.

<Breakfast tomorrow with Seth and I?> She asked with a smiley faced emoticon.

Becca’s reply was nearly instantaneous despite the late hour. She was still up studying for finals.

<Sorry! Can’t do breakfast because of final. Lunch??????> There was a sad faced emoticon after sorry.

<Lunch sounds great. Seth and I will see you at the dining hall at noon. Our treat.>

<Yay!> Followed by a hungry face and an emoticon burger sealed the deal.

Lilly slipped her phone back into a secure pocket and opened the general comms channel. “Meeting set for tomorrow at noon.”

The lack of an immediate reply told her that some people were probably bitching at having to hold their position for the next twelve hours.

“Acknowledged.” The voice of Seif al-Din didn’t sound the slightest bit perturbed. “You are released until then.”

“Roger.” She replied, reaching out to grab the demolitions guys she’d brought, and teleporting back to the hotel room.

It was empty except for a few people setting up a rather large bomb by the bed. Everyone else was out at their staging areas. Her demo guy practically skipped over to his friends and started talking excitedly. She couldn’t tell what they were saying, but whatever it was couldn’t be good for America.

<I seriously hope I get a contract one day to take these fuckers out.> She’d betray them in a heartbeat if someone payed her to.

She daydreamed briefly of stabbing them all in the throat before pulling herself out of the pleasant fantasy and disappearing in another blast of shadow. She arrived at her flat, got out of her costume, and jumped in the shower.

The pipes protested at having water run through them for the first time in months, but it was clean and warm so she didn’t care. She dried off, blow-dried her hair, fixed her makeup, dressed in comfy study clothes, and then teleported back to her usual alleyway.  From there she waked back to townhouse 117 where she looked like just another exhausted student cramming for finals.

She really wanted to do a different type of cramming. Demolitions really revved her engine, but Seth was already asleep and she needed to sleep too. Tomorrow was going to be a long and adrenaline-filled day.

She was asleep about a minute after her head hit the pillow, and it felt like she was awake a moment after that. Seth was up and moving around the room like an agitated hummingbird. He kept knocking stuff over and cursing to himself.

“Babe?” She asked through the delirium of a half-asleep mind.

“Sorry,” he grunted as he pulled on shoes. “Go back to sleep.”

“Another trial?” Her brain was already beginning to drift.

“Yeah, don’t worry I’ll be fine. Get some sleep.”

“Ok.” She mumbled.

She felt Seth kiss her forehead and then he was gone, and she was out again.

She went through a couple of REM cycles before she woke up again, but it still didn’t feel like enough. Her clock said it was ten, so she’d officially skipped her biology final. Not that she gave a shit.

<I’m about to kidnap someone and be an accessory to terrorism. Who the fuck cares about BIO 103?> She laughed a little and went to take another shower.

For whatever reason, she really wanted to be clean for today. The Big Day.

<I’ve got this. He loves you. I’ve got this. He loves you.> Was her mantra as she gamed out scenario after scenario in her head.

If A happened she would do this. If B happened she would do that. If C, D, and X happened she’d shoot this person, blow up that, grab Seth by the dick and get the hell out of dodge. It wasn’t likely things would go that sideways, but you always needed to be prepared.

<And of course there is plan Z.> Her zombie apocalypse plan, and a good plan for everything going tits up in the worst possible way. <Use every bullet, every grenade, and every RPG on anyone and everyone.> She had a few of the rocket-propelled grenades stacked on her armory table and ready to go. If she needed to, she would just destroy everything she could before running; preferably to a nonextradition country.

<But it won’t come to that.> She was confident. They’d put too much planning into all of this to fuck it up.

At 11:45 she took ten deep breaths and pulled on her running shoes. Her outfit for lunch was a black workout top and yoga pants. The casual uniform of anyone who’d just finished finals and wanted to kick back for the next three months. She had none of her Wraith gear. All of that came later. All she had was a little pea-shooter tucked securely in her purse. She had a permit for it and everything. Or at least a permit for what it looked like.

This was an example of a big things come in small packages moment. Her pea-shooter could put a hole in steel from twenty-five meters. It would be enough to stun and bruise a low-level strongwoman like Anika.

But if everything went according to plan she wouldn’t need it.

She hurried to the dining hall. She checked her phone, but hadn’t heard anything from Seth. He’d been gone since he woke her up in the middle of the night.

<It’s actually better if he isn’t here. My plan will work better if we’re lost in the madness at first. It gives me some extra cover.> However shit went down she was going to make sure he was safe.

Becca and Anika were already there when she arrived. The blue-haired speedster was bouncing around the pizza station, and Anika was grabbing a few burgers and a salad. Lilly, now fully in her Liz persona, just grabbed a turkey melt.

“Hey, Liz.” Becca was her usual cheerful self.

“Hey.” Anika grunted simply.

“How are your finals going?” Liz started the conversation while pulling out her phone.

Becca rattled off everything she’d done by the time Liz could check her text messages.

<Still nothing from him.> Liz frowned.

“Everything ok?” Anika asked, her green eyes watching Liz closely.

“Yeah.” Liz brushed it off. “Seth was just supposed to meet us here, and I haven’t heard from him yet today. He did have a trial this morning.” She lowered her voice for the last bit.

“Then he’ll be done when he’s done.” Anika replied bluntly, returning to her burgers.

“Yeah, I’ll just tell him we’re here.”

Liz punched in two letters to a number that wasn’t Seth’s.

She hit send, and then took a bite of her sandwich.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Servitude

Gerald remembered his time in the Golden Hall like it was yesterday.

 

***

 

The winged woman, whose smile never reached her eyes, left him in the middle of the hall surrounded by other men and women who looked just as confused as him. His eyes scanned the growing crowd as more winged women dumped their charges unceremoniously on the ground. As his eyes swept from side to side he noticed guards placed throughout the assembly area. They were standing silently around the edges and were so still he thought they were statues.

But then one shifted slightly from one foot to the other.

He cautiously approached the nearest one and realized how huge they were.

Gerald always considered himself a tall man, and his friends reinforced that perception, but today he found himself looking up at the nearest guard. Each guard was outfitted from head to toe in gleaming black armor and carried weapons larger than anything he’d ever seen. Carefully, Gerald regarded the one nearest him.

The man was a head and a half taller than Gerald and half again as wide. The black armor, like a medieval knight’s, fully enclosed the guard’s entire body. But the armor was unlike anything Gerald had seen in his European History books. From strategic areas in the armor: like the gauntlet’s knuckles, knees, elbows, and shoulders wicked looking barbs stabbed outward. From those spikes dripped what appeared to be black ooze.

If that wasn’t intimidating enough the armor itself seemed to instill in Gerald a sense of foreboding. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it but the armor seemed to eat away at the warmth permeating from the hall.

Gerald stopped several feet from the armored man and watched the ooze drip onto the floor and evaporate with a sizzle.

After a few moments of gazing in silence the armored head turned to regard Gerald, sending a fresh wave of terror down his spine.

“Join the other recruits, meat.”

Gerald gulped, shocked and confused. Not only was the remark from the heavily armored suit an insult, but the voice coming from inside it was clearly feminine.

<How?> Gerald didn’t have time to ask the question before a loud THUD echoed through the hall.

“Attention!” A powerful, male voice called from what appeared to be the front of the room. “Assemble!”

Gerald knew that command and without a thought hurried to obey. He gave one last glance over his shoulder at the deadly looking woman as ran toward the consolidating crowd.

“Form up!” The voice commanded.

There was a lot of jostling as they started to form three equally long lines. Once they were formed up they were directed to reform by height. Gerald moved forward in his rank until the man in front of him was taller, which put him second in line.

“Listen closely.” The man giving commands finally stepped into sight.

He was shorter than Gerald but bulkier, with a black breastplate similar to the armored guards standing around the hall. On his hip was a short sword that Gerald recognized as a Roman Gladius, and on his back, over a blood-red cape fastened at his shoulders, was a circular metal shield.

“Do not speak unless spoken to. As you approach our Lord you will kneel and kiss his feet. Do not stare. When our Lord dismisses you with a wave, rise and move off to the side and reform. Do nothing else and you will eat tonight. Disobey me and you will suffer.” The man’s last word sucked the remaining warmth from Gerald’s chest.

A chest, he failed to notice until now, that still had a steadily thumping heartbeat.

“March!” The command cut through Gerald’s surprise like a whip, and his feet automatically started to move forward.

Marching was something a trained soldier could do without thinking, so Gerald used that time to focus on his surroundings. They were marching down the golden halls, which were guarded every twenty feet by an armored man, or woman, in that frightening black armor. In the distance, farther than seemed possible, was a set of doors.

The doors grew taller and taller as they marched closer. Soon the doors towered over them, dozens of feet tall. The hall grew wider near the doors as well. So wide, Gerald was sure the hundreds of people marching toward it could fit through it standing shoulder to shoulder.

Decorating the door was an exquisitely carved tree. Gerald was not a patron of the arts, but he recognized master craftsmanship when he saw it. The carving seemed so life-like, to the point the leaves actually seemed to wave in an unseen breeze.  Strangely, part of the tree seemed to be in full bloom, and ripe with fruit, while another section seemed to be withered and dying.

<That’s odd.>

But not as odd as the serpent encircling the tree. Its fanged maw was open wide and eating its own tail. Like the tree’s leaves, Gerald could have sworn the scales on the masochistic beast were moving as if the serpent was slithering across the ground.

He could have spent hours studying the workmanship, but without a sound the giant doors opened into what could only be described as a throne room.

And on that throne sat a man.

Or at least that was what Gerald thought.

As the formation drew closer and finally halted, Gerald had trouble of thinking of the creature as a man.

First, he was a giant, a literal giant. The guards standing at attention throughout the golden hall were huge, but they paled in comparison to this man. He stood almost three times as tall, approaching twenty feet, and twice as thick. He was clad from head to foot in gleaming silver armor, which unlike the black armor of the guards, seemed to radiate power not drain it away. In his right hand, blade down, was a broadsword taller and thicker than Gerald. In his left hand, tucked into the crook of his elbow, was a helmet of the same gleaming silver metal inlaid with a golden crown.

Despite his impossible height, everything from the shoulders down on this man was normal.

Then Gerald made the mistake of looking at his face.

Gerald had seen the Frenchmen with their wigs, powder, and perfume arriving from Paris to engage in trade. The women swooned over them. They called them handsome, beautiful, and magnificent. Gerald had never liked those men, he’d always thought of them as weak.

This man’s face put those Frenchmen to shame. He made them look like dirt. Gerald had no qualms thinking this man could take any woman, despite her virtue, into his bed. The giant’s jaw was broad, his cheekbones as high as any English aristocrat’s, and his eye was the piercing gray of a stormy sea.

<Eye?> Gerald did a double-take at the man’s face.

One gray eye was scanning the men and women assembled before him, while the other socket was empty and the space around it charred black.

Gerald quickly averted his gaze as the giant’s attention swept over his section of the formation. Once Gerald was sure the giant’s attention had passed he looked again.

Despite the burned out eye socket the man’s face was flawless. On top of his head was a small patch of raven black hair. It was not long, as was the current style. It looked like it was kept intentionally short.

Gerald would have spent more time wondering why a Lord was so out of touch with modern trends, but then his eyes caught what rose up behind the giant’s back. Rising above the smooth armor of the giant’s shoulders were tarnished, white wings.

Just as Gerald laid eyes on them the giant spread them out to their full length and smiled at them. The whole mass of men and women recoiled, not because the tarnished part of the giant’s wings was clearly dried, rust-colored blood, but because of the man’s smile.

Rows of sharp, jagged teeth grinned out at Gerald and the people around him. It was eerily similar to the teeth of a shark Gerald had seen hanging at the port of Boston.

“Behold, Prince Seere, Master of Thieves, The Great Dissenter. Kneel before your master!” The man who’d led them to meet this monster yelled as he prostrated himself on the ground.

Gerald quickly followed their leader’s example, and soon the rest of the formation did as well.

Prince Seere didn’t speak he just gazed out at them with his predatory smile.

“On your feet!” Their leader yelled.

Gerald hurried to obey. The giant was now seated on a throne of gold, and he was still taller than everyone in the room.

“Approach and enter our Lord’s service.”

Gerald did not envy the first man to approach the giant. The man was the biggest of the first line, half a head taller than Gerald, and he was shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. Slowly, and awkwardly, the man got on his knees before the Lord’s feet and gave one giant toe a quick kiss.

The tall man’s lips had barely left the Lord’s feet when the giant waved his hand in dismissal. The tall man stumbled getting to his feet. The Lord waved his hand again and the tall man went flying across the room. He hit the wall with a hard THUMP and did not get up.

Gerald gasped. Nothing had touched the man. He’d been picked up and thrown by the Lord’s gesture.

<Witchcraft!> It was a silly thought to have while standing in Hell, but old habits die hard, and the Preacher’s Sunday sermons still echoed in his mind.  

The Lord didn’t even glance in the broken man’s direction as an armored guard effortlessly scooped him up and carried him away.

“Next!” Screamed their leader, pointing toward the Lord’s feet with urgency in his tone and eyes. “Or starve.”

Men and women scrambled up to kiss the feet of Prince Seere. It seemed like hours passed as hundreds debased themselves before him. Occasionally, the Lord would stop a person and look them over for a moment before waving them away.

Finally, it was Gerald’s turn. He hurried up the stairs, careful not to trip. Still, he practically fell down to both knees and kissed the giant’s big toe.

Gerald had not heard of electricity yet, so he had no accurate way of describing the feeling the surged through every nerve in his body. If he had known, he would have been able to accurately describe electrocution.

He remained kneeling, breathing heavily, and waiting for the wave of dismissal. The Lord’s one good eye seemed to cut through Gerald’s body and into his soul, or whatever else was left inside of him.

A few seconds of coiled tension passed before the Lord waved him away. With a sigh of relief Gerald scrambled to his feet and ran to reform with the other recruits. He got back into line and found himself face to face with their leader.

The man had to look up to meet Gerald’s eyes, but that didn’t make the man’s sword-point any less frightening as he jabbed it into Gerald’s sternum. “Don’t think you’ll get any special treatment because our Lord likes you.”

Gerald didn’t have any idea what the leader was talking about.  So he wisely kept his mouth shut. He didn’t feel like being impaled today.

“I’ll be watching you closely, meat.” The leader sneered before walking off to make sure the rest of the formation showed proper respect to Prince Seere.

<What have I gotten myself into?> Gerald gulped when the last of the formation had knelt before their new Lord and master.

 

***

 

“Sir.” A familiar voice snapped Gerald out of his memory.

“Yes.” Gerald flexed his jaw and worked the rest of the kinks out of his body.

Now was not a good time to be stiff.

“The General requires your presence in the command tent.” Most people would give this information with a slight bow, but Gerald’s aide had been with him a long time. As long as they were in private they could drop the formalities.

And the rock outcropping that concealed his sleeping place was about a private as you could get out here.

“Tell him I’m on my way.” Gerald leaned his weapon up against the rocks and adjusted his armor.

The thick, black Infernal Iron would have crushed a normal man, but Gerald wore it with ease. In fact, he hardly ever took the breastplate off. Doing so was an invitation for anyone to stick a dagger into his heart.

He thought back to his first encounter with a member of Prince Seere’s Royal Guard and couldn’t help but smirk. The woman had been so intimidating in her full armor he had nearly wet himself. Now, the armor was something he lovingly embraced. Without it, and the Infernal power it stored and channeling into him, he wouldn’t have been able to achieve his current station.

“Have them prepare a SITREP on enemy movements before my departure,” he called after his aide.

The acronym was relatively new to Gerald’s vocabulary, but he found it appropriate. War was a constantly evolving organism, just as complicated as any woman. New meat brought new ideas into the legions. While some of those ideas were idiotic, some were invaluable and led to new tactics and doctrines that allowed Seere’s legions to conquer and maintain power.

In Hell, power was everything, which was the entire reason Gerald found himself sleeping on the side of a mountain watching the enemy’s forces draw near.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 68

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop wasn’t afraid of hospitals, but he wasn’t the biggest fan either. Nobody was really a fan of hospitals. Who liked to go someplace where you were either sick or injured?

<Doctors and hypochondriacs,> he thought as he followed Eve through the hanger bay.

Coop had only been to the medical clinic in the PHA once. The line was always out the door for the single physician’s assistant or nurse that was on duty, so Rats figured out how to deal with anything but the worst problems. Coop had been forced to go by his father when he’d been shot, but anything less than that was what the prominent Rat considered a teachable moment.

Getting a deep cut in his arm from some junkie wanting his BSA ration got a huff and a “hand me the dental floss” from the hard, old man.

When Coop came home with his dick on fire he was told to rub some dirt on it until he could buy some drugs off the dude at the corner. The pharmacy in that guy’s coat was better than what the clinic had anyway.

Coop had already been in a hospital twice as much since starting Basic. He was sure his dad would have approved of a visit after lethal poisoning and getting his jaw shattered. But that was only an assumption.

The other recruits of Echo Company had been assigned rooms as they went deeper into the grid formation of mobile hospital centers. The “rooms”, which were composed of four walls of plastic curtains, gave the recruit a modicum of privacy. Each room was full of at least one doctor and a nurse or two. The Company was vastly outnumbered by the medical personnel in the hanger.

Coop only felt slightly trapped in the entire scenario.

By the time they reached the back of the grid sections it was only Eve, Coop, Mike, and the two other recruits that were going heavy infantry. Their operating rooms were different, and that made him nervous. Instead of plastic curtains, they’d be spending the next week in modular polyplast cubes complete with a small section for decontamination. Coop could see through their clear walls and watched the five-man medical teams buzzing like bees around honey. Including the doctor leading them, that meant they’d each have six people operating on them to turn them into all that they could be.

Coop gulped, and his stomach fell into his feet. He didn’t let Eve see it though. There was no way she’d get with a chicken shit. So he sucked it up, just like his old man taught him, and tried to look like this was just another training exercise.

“Give me a few minutes with the teams and then we’ll call you in one at a time.” The doctor smiled at the five of them. “You’ll be out for most of the next week, but then you’ll all be in rehab together. If you have anything to say to each other then I suggest saying it now.” She disappeared into the first cube that gave a soft hiss as it shut behind her.

Eve, Coop, and Mike didn’t know the other two guys getting the procedure so they ignored them.

“Well…” Coop scratched his head trying to think of something to say. “Don’t die I guess.”

Mike let out a single gruff laugh, and extended his hand. “You too. Hopefully we’ll be in the same HI class.”

“You watch my back and I’ll watch yours.” Coop shook his hand and then turned to Eve.

“Don’t get all emotional on me now, Cooper.” Her harsh words didn’t match the smile on her face.

“You know me, boss-lady.” He grinned back, letting her fill in the blanks.

“I do know you.” She pulled herself closer and Coop felt his heartbeat skyrocket. “So do me a favor.” She invaded his personal space.

Coop could feel her breath on his face and the warmth of her body hovering just a centimeter away from his. If she got any closer she’d feel his excitement.

“If you see a white light, or more likely smell sulfur, give it the finger and come back. I haven’t released you from duty yet.” She rose onto the balls of her feet and planted a short kiss on his cheek.

Coop felt warmth blossom through him and his skin flushed hot.

“Um…yeah…yeah sure.” After that, Coop wasn’t going to die. He was going to live, and judging by that farewell, he’d be living balls deep in Eve when they both recovered.

“Recruit Berg!” The doctor called from the cube farthest to the right. “We’ll start with you.”

Eve took a deep breath, gave them an “everything is fine” look over her shoulder, and disappeared into the modular operating room.

Then came the waiting. <Fucking waiting.> Coop thought he was going to have diarrhea from the growing stress. With Eve gone he allowed his anxiety to show.

Twenty minutes later the doctor came back and got Coop.

“Just stand still,” she explained as the cube door hissed shut behind them. In front of them was a second clear, polyplast door that remained closed.

There was a second hiss and jets of steam sprayed down on them. “Decontamination complete. No foreign bodies detected.” The cube spoke and the second doors open.

“Everyone, this is Recruit Mark Cooper, but he likes to be called Coop.” The doctor introduced him to the team.

“Coop,” the doctor made sure he was looking at her, “my team and I are going to take very good care of you. We’ve all done this procedure dozens of times with a ninety-five percent success rate. We’re very good at what we do. I want you to know you’re in good hands.”

Coop felt himself relax a bit, and then the doctor led him over to the operating table. He felt his sphincter pucker as he looked at what had to be half-table, half-torture device.

<Son of a bitch!> The rest of the team had been tactically blocking his view of the table until now.

His step faltered, and he felt a strong push from behind. The doctor was stronger than she looked.

“I know it looks like something out of a horror movie.” The doctor continued to prod him along until two of her nurses, both big guys, were able to take both his arms and get him on the table. “But it’s necessary to do what we need done. And then it’s necessary for your protection. So just lie down and relax.”

<Holy shit! Holy shit!> Coop laid down on autopilot as the nurses strapped him in, and the straps weren’t leather or plastic. They were made of cold, hard duro-steel.

“We need to take a bit of blood now for your genome mapping.” The doctor had pulled on gloves and grabbed a thankfully small needle.

Getting stuck with the needle and having the blood drawn hurt, but he ignored it.

“That was good.” She smiled and gave him a pat on the shoulder.

“Yeah, that wasn’t too bad.” Coop actually got his hopes up.

And then the nurses brought up a cart that had a dozen injection guns on it.

“This is going to hurt a little more.” The doctor took one of the guns and gently lifted his head to place it where his skull met his neck. “But we need these markers and monitors to see the muscular-skeletal growth progress.” She didn’t give him any more warning.

There was a loud SNAP as a nanite injection was pumped into Coop’s spine.

“Motherfucker!” Coop screamed as he strained against the steel restraints. It didn’t do any good, and it didn’t help as the rest of the injections were shot into predetermined parts of his body.

Coop nearly blacked out from the pain, but he still felt his smartcloth uniform pulled off, a smaller piece of fabric laid over his crotch, and then a final restraint fastened over his waist.

“Good job, Coop.” The doctor’s face swam back into focus as his vision righted itself.

Despite the lingering pain, Coop managed a laugh. “I’m just peachy, Doc.”

“Good.” She smiled her warm smile that he now found evil. “I need to let this sit for a few minutes until we get a good signal on everything and then I’ll put you out.”

“Put me out?” Coop’s forehead crinkled at the statement.

“Of course, we aren’t going to keep you awake for the procedure. That would be cruel. It is incredibly painful. I’ll put you in a medically induced coma and then pull you out once we’re finished and the enhancements set.”

<A coma!> Coop didn’t like the sound of that one bit.

“I’ll be back soon.” She smiled her damned smile again, removed her protective gear, and left Coop alone with the rest of the surgical team.

“How you feeling, buddy?” One of the big nurses asked, sounding like he was talking to a young child or a dog.

“This fucking sucks! How do you think it feels?” Coop snapped back. Ending all further conversation with the team until Doctor Evil-Smile returned.

She walked back in and went directly to the holographic monitors hovering in the air next to Coop. “It looks like we’ve got a good signal and can get started.”

The team had stuck Coop with various needles while she was gone, and now they started to hook up tubes to them. He had at least one tube on each major limb and multiple ones in his chest.

Coop didn’t mind the needles and tubes that were sticking out of him now. They just itched and were mildly irritating. What freaked him the fuck out was the thing that started to move toward him with the assistance of anti-grav tech.

The closest thing he could compare it to was a sarcophagus’ lid. It had a head shaped space that rounded out for shoulders to comfortably fit in, and then was a solid block from there down to the feet. It had to be heavy, or they would have used a mechanical arm instead of anti-grav, but it was what was inside the sarcophagus-like thing that made Coop nearly shit himself.

It was needles. Lots and lots of needles. Some were small and thin, others were big and long; and they were moving. Coop saw the red blink of a full-body scan and dozens of dots sprung to life all over him. Then the needles moved to match up with those dots.

“Calm down, Coop. Everything is ok.” The doctor comforted him.

Coop didn’t even realize he was struggling and hyperventilating.

“You’re not going to feel anything, I promise.” The doctor made a motion to someone he couldn’t see, and Coop immediately felt liquids flowing into him from the tubes.

He felt sleepy, started to doze, but then fought it.

<No way in hell am I’m going to let that thing gut me like a fish.> He tried to struggle, but it was useless against twenty-fifth century medicine.

“I want you to count backwards from one hundred, Coop.”

He could still see the doctor although his vision was starting to recede and darken around the edges.

“One hundred…ninety-nine…” He gave into his fate. “Ninety…” And he was out.

The doctor checked his vitals on the holos, and opened his eyes to wave a light in them. She got no response.

“Ok, he’s ready. Prognosis?”

“Everything we’re reading is good.” A younger doctor on his PAD was looking over data. “He should survive.”

“Good.” The senior doctor’s smile grew tired. “You’ve got it from here. I need to personally supervise the Ranger candidate’s surgery.”

“Of course.” The junior doctor tried to hide his enthusiasm and failed. “Let’s get started.” He stated the moment the senior doctor exited the cube. “Procedure one, initiate.

The medical contraption slowly lowered itself onto Mark Cooper, and came to rest silently on top of the recruit like he was some ancient mummy. You wouldn’t even know it had practically impaled Coop in dozens of places, sticking needles deep into his bones and muscles, and started to pump him full of proprietary technology.

Coop didn’t even twitch. He was as good as dead.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 67

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

His lips softly brushed up against hers. His were chapped and hard while hers were soft like velvet. The kiss started tentative and wary. They both knew this was wrong. They both knew they could get caught, but in the moment they didn’t care.

Coop pulled back a little, but Eve grabbed him tight and pressed her naked body up against his. That was all the invitation he needed. The tentative kiss became aggressive. His tongue parted her lips and danced around her mouth, eliciting a small groan from the woman he’d waited months to bang.

When he came up for breath she attacked. She gripped him around the waist with her legs, pulled off his shirt, and went to work on his belt.  She quickly got his clothes off, and then they were laying naked beside each other.

Coop looked into her striking blue eyes, which he could swear were glowing in the soft barracks lighting. He could tell from that look she needed him as much as he needed her, and a quick look down showed he needed her a lot.

Eve ran her hands through his short-cropped hair, dragging her fingernails along his scalp, which sent tingles town his spine. “Are you ready?” She maneuvered him so he was on top of her.

“Yeah.” He replied breathlessly.

She looked up at him again. Her light blue eyes locked with his stormy blue ones and she grinned.

“WAKE UP, COOP!”

Coop jerked so hard as Eve’s scream woke him out of the wet dream that he almost rolled off the bed. Reflexively he caught the opposite side of the thin mattress and shifted his weight so he didn’t fall face-first off the top bunk. That would have been embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as flashing his hard-on to everyone in the squad.

“You awake now?” Eve asked, her head popping up next to him. “And apparently pitching a tent too.” Coop saw her blush before she ducked back out of sight.

“Yep, I’m all good boss-lady.” He tried to keep his voice steady.

<It’s better to let her see if she can handle me now than be in the moment and her back out.> He tried to put a positive spin on the situation, and the “I’ve got a big dick” ego boost did the trick.

“Second squad, get off your asses and get ready for formation. Coop,” Eve singled him out, “please put some clothes on.”

Coop noticed she didn’t make eye contact and was still blushing when she addressed him. That made his day, because the last few days had sucked donkey dick with a side of shit salad. They’d finished up their last VR training exercise nearly a week ago. It had been a long pain in the ass, but it had been fun as hell.

Coop felt completely at home sitting in the middle of shit blowing up all around him. It was a twisted mindset, he realized that on some level, but Gunney Cunningham also told him to embrace that shit because that was where he was going to spend his career as a heavy infantry trooper.

After the VR crash, which hadn’t been bad because he’d lived through the whole battle, and enough sleep to keep the company functional, they’d headed back out to the ranges. Those who hadn’t qualified on their M3s yet did so, those who had qualified tried to do better, and those who still couldn’t qualify got recycled, or in one case just booted out of the armed forces all together.

“Soldiers don’t need ta be able to do a lot. They need ta be able to sleep wherever, fuck whenever, and shoot whatever they’re ordered ta.” PO3 Janney shouted at all of them as the poor recruit from sixth squad got driven off the range. “If y’all can’t do that then y’all are worthless ta me.”

Coop had supreme confidence he could do all three of those things without fail.

The range had been the best part, although it was hot as balls out and his piss was florescent yellow no matter how much he drank. In the end, Coop had upped his qualification score to an eighty-seven out of a hundred, and that earned him the Sharpshooter badge. He thought he was pretty hot shit for about ten seconds until he looked over and saw Eve had hit ninety-nine out of a hundred.

Every time he was looking at her boobs, and she caught him, he said he was admiring her Expert badge. He didn’t know if she bought it. Hell, she might have enjoyed all the attention, but she was pretty pissed about the one target she’d missed.

The fun had ended at the range. They’d spent a night out under the stars, where they thankfully hadn’t been ambushed. They’d done their own ambushing of new company weeks ago, and it was a hell of a lot more enjoyable kicking ass then getting your ass kicked. The morning after the range they had their final test.

“Our task today is to conduct a fifty kilometer road march.” GYSGT Cunningham announced, her glare daring anyone to complain. “Conditions are nominal, and you can find weather data and the route on your PADs. The standard for completing this road march is twenty hours for recruits going into fleet specialties, fifteen for infantry, thirteen for heavy infantry, and you, Recruit Berg, have only twelve hours to complete the march.”

Coop looked around the formation and saw that everyone looked supremely confident. <Thirteen hours is a lot of time.>

“For those of you who struggle with basic arithmetic, that means you future fleet pukes have twenty-four minutes per kilometer, future ground-pounders have eighteen minutes, future heavies have a little over fifteen and a half minutes, and Ms. Berg you have a little under fourteen and a half minutes per kilometer.” The GYSGT looked around at everyone’s confident expressions and gave a grin that wiped them away. “That might not seem like a lot, but you are doing this all in a full kit and carrying a normal combat load for your squad.

<And there’s the ‘fuck you’ I was waiting for.> Coop’s feet hurt just thinking about it.

“Everybody go get your scales on, pack up according to standard, and reassemble for inspection at 0600.”

They did as they were told, and everybody but a girl from tenth squad passed inspection. She got recycled for an integrity violation. Echo Company stepped off on their fifty klick road march at 0630, and it was the longest, most fucking awful thirteen hours of Coop’s life. He’d tried to keep up with Eve, and succeeded for the first fifteen klicks, but then she pulled away. He saw her at the end getting looked over by a medic when he collapsed across the finish line at twelve hours and forty one minutes.

Not everyone else was as lucky. A number of recruits collapsed from heatstroke and couldn’t finish, and some more didn’t make the standard. They all got recycled and had to endure that shit a second time.

At the end of their formal training, Echo Company 132nd Training battalion was down to forty-four recruits, and second squad was down to seven. They’d lost Olivia and John during the ruck march.

“Good job everyone.” For once the PO3 and GYSGT looked like they meant it. “We’re on a twenty-four hours stand down. Get checked out by the medics, get some sleep, eat like fat little piggies, and we’ll see you all at 0600 tomorrow.” Then they were gone, and the company followed their orders to the letter.

Coop got shot full of medical nanites, he ate his weight in pancakes, turkey clubs, and cheeseburgers. Then doubled it in ice cream. He slept like death, and had erotic dreams that would win awards.

And now he was right back where he started; standing in fresh CMUs outside the plain, white barracks as the GYSGT and PO3 gave them a morning inspection. Coop didn’t even pay attention while it all happened. He was too busy about thinking where the dream with Eve could have gone.

“Right face, forward march.”

Coop executed the commands on autopilot, and followed Eve’s gorgeous backside as they marched across the training center. He found it odd they weren’t running, but he wasn’t complaining. <Why run when you can walk.> Even thinking the thought felt wrong after going through basic training.

Since they were marching it was a long march, but he recognized where they were going. The medical center loomed over the cookie-cutter white buildings that dominated the training center. The building was huge, sleek, and shiny. It was still white, but this was medical, sterile white, not the hastily painted barracks white. Coop thought its exterior walls were probably duro-steel. He’d been inside the building more than once and there was some expensive shit in there.

<If I was going to attack or rob this place I’d go straight for the medical center.> He thought. <Knock out the enemy’s ability to care for their wounded.> The tactician inside him chimed in. <Or steal all those drugs. That shit would fetch a fortune on any market.> The thief added his two cents.

Huge doors opened up at the front of the building and the whole company marched right in. The GYSGT led them down a slanted hallway, underground, and into what looked like a large hanger bay. The bay was divided into sections and filled with doctors, technicians, and their equipment. There had to be five hundred people in the room already.

GYSGT Cunningham halted the company, did an about-face, and waited for someone to come get them. They waited for nearly half an hour before a woman with a cute, heart-shaped face and a warm smile came out to meet them. Coop recognized her. She’d monitored him after his poisoning and getting his jaw shattered. He liked her.

“Commander.” The GYSGT greeted the officer, saluted her, and then moved around the formation to the rear. The Commander took charge by stepping into the NCO’s spot.

“Relax everyone, I’m Commander Ives, your Brigade Surgeon. And I’m here to give a brief explanation of what will be occurring this week.” Her good-natured bedside manner immediately put everyone at ease. “But first the paperwork.”

Everyone’s PAD gave a synchronized chime. Coop took his out and started to read the pages of waivers that were attached to the email.

“The short of it,” the doctor stated after allowing them several minutes to read, “is that we are going to change all of you to be better soldiers and spacers. This change is needed to do your jobs, and the changes are proprietary and property of the Commonwealth. I can answer questions if you have any?”

“So we’re going to be owned by the Commonwealth?” Aaron, the recruit going into OCS asked.

“You are already property of the Commonwealth, Recruit Aaron.” The GYSGT answered that question.

“The moment ya signed on the dotted line we owned ya ass.” The PO3 added with a smile.

The doctor just shrugged, and Aaron went back to reading.

“Ma’am.” Coop raised his hand like he was back in school.

The doctor gave him a warm smile. “Nice to see you again, Recruit Cooper. It looks like your jaw has held up nicely.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Coop smiled back. “Is there any chance you could elaborate a bit more on what these changes are? These documents don’t give a lot of specifics.”

“That’s because the enhancements we’ll be making are dependent on your assigned military occupational specialty. Your MOS will determine what you need to do your job to standard.”

<Enhancement.> Coop found the wording intriguing.

“For example, most of you recruits are going to be in the 92 series, which is automated systems technicians. You’ll get qualifiers as you train and become competent in specific systems, but a 92B is a catchall for most enlisted spacers. Physically, you will receive very little enhancement because no matter how strong we make you no one is going to survive getting hit my a missile or a laser.” She looked sad at that. “We’ll do some skin grafting and sure-up your internals to ensure you’ll survive the void for up to a full minute of exposure. But beyond that it isn’t cost effective to do anything more.”

A lot of the future spacers in the room looked a little put off by that.

“The good news is that the 92 series procedure isn’t too bad. It’s only a few hours on the table and a day in recovery, so you’ll have a lot of downtime over the next week.”

That got some spirits back up.

“Now the future infantry recruits, the soon to be 11Bs, your enhancements are a little more invasive. We need to build up your entire muscular-skeletal structure. Bones need to be strengthened, muscle-density needs to be thickened, your quick-twitch muscle fibers need to be manipulated, and all your internals need to be upgraded to meet the increased needs of your new body. All of that needs to be done so you can wear and fight in your armor effectively.”

<That makes sense.> Coop gulped. <I wondered how we were going to be able to do anything with ninety extra kilos on our backs.>

“On top of the physical we need to work on mental capabilities.” The doctor smiled. “92Bs will get a boost in cognitive function so they can handle the multitude of data input you’ll be getting. 11Bs will get their neural pathways hardened to reduce the likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. But everyone is going to get a complete DNA and genome mapping for our epigenetics program. We’re going to analyze your DNA and make sure behaviors and attitudes needed in your job description become prominent. We’re going to bring out that warrior gene in all you 11Bs that’s for sure.” Her warm smile didn’t do much to calm Coop down.

<They’re gonna turn me into fucking Frankenstein?!>

“I see we’ve got a couple heavy infantry, 13B, and an 18B, a Ranger Candidate. Hmmm.” She looked surprised to see that. “I’ll be working on all of you personally. Your procedures are the most invasive, scaled up versions of what the regular 11Bs get. You need to be able to handle the powered armor you’ll be assigned. Trust me, they make the Dragonscale armor feel like paperweights.”

<Fuck me sideways and call me uncle.> Coop wasn’t going to cry, but he felt a little pee dribble out.

“Don’t worry, Cooper.” GYSGT Cunningham called from behind them. “It sucks when it happens, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

<She’s heavy infantry?> He kept his jaw from dropping. <But she’s hot.> That put at ease one of his reservations. He didn’t want to give up his roguish good looks to be able to kick in a door better.

“Recruit Berg.” the Doctor turned to Eve. “You’re getting a lot of special and classified upgrades. I’m going to say I’m sorry now because you’re going to hate me when this is over.”

“Yes, Ma’am. No hard feelings, Ma’am,” Eve replied, but she looked a little paler than normal.

“I’ll ask for your forgiveness after the full recovery week you and the 13Bs are going to spend with me.” That sad smile was back. “Now if everyone will please sign the waivers and pay close attention to the side-effects. It could be anything from severe nausea to death. We try to avoid the latter at all costs, but accidents do happen.”

<Don’t even think about it.> Coop ordered himself as he pressed his GIC to the PAD and confirmed he’d read and understood the documents. <They already own my ass.>

“Excellent.” The doctor stated as confirmations filled back onto her PAD. “Let’s get started. Some of us have a long week ahead of us.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 66

Benjamin Gold

Location: New York City, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Are you sure I’m allowed to go to this?” Commander Wythe asked for the fifth time. Although, she preferred to be called Sarah on this occasion.

“Of course.” Ben smiled across the back of the luxurious air-limo at her. “Do not let the name of the event fool you.”

A week ago, Ben had invited his mentor, and the woman he had a slight crush on, to be his plus one at the Gold Family Veteran’s Day Celebration. She’d accepted without hesitation, which Ben took as a good sign.

Now, the battle-hardened commander was second guessing herself.

“It has nothing to do with family.” Ben explained. “It is an event that is part party, part meet and greet, part charity, and part excuse for my father to lord his wealth and reputation over everyone’s heads.”

That got a laugh out of his date.

“Ok.” She took a deep breath and smoothed the edges of her uniformed skirt. “I just haven’t celebrated a Veteran’s Day outside a veteran’s hall in a long time.”

Ben’s experience was the exact opposite.

He knew that veteran’s halls were gathering places for veterans partially subsidized by the Ministry of War and the rest by private donations. He had given generously since joining the navy to the halls in New York and London, but he’d never actually been in one before; especially on Veteran’s Day. When he celebrated at all he felt obligated to attend his family’s event.

Veteran’s Day post-expansion was very different from pre-expansion. Before the Last Terran War, Veteran’s Day had been celebrated on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in commemoration of the end of the First Great War. Sadly, World War I didn’t hold a candle to the Last Terran War.

When the dust cleared, the atmospheric scrubbers started to clear away the fallout, and the modern starfaring nations picked themselves back up the holiday was changed. Instead of occurring on November eleventh, Veteran’s Day now took place on June nineteenth. The eve of the most devastating war humanity had ever experienced. Even the various interstellar conflicts between the Commonwealth and Eastern Block didn’t compare.

Veteran’s Day was also a Commonwealth recognized holiday, which gave Ben and Sarah the day off, and led to them sitting in traffic above the Atlantic about fifty miles from New York’s Upper City. It was a good thing that the air-limo was stocked with a full bar. In typical military tradition, Sarah and Ben had started to drink the moment they felt the limo come to a hover, and Geoffrey began his apologetic litany for the unavoidable event.

It gave them a change to talk.

“You have spent most of your holidays in a hall?” Ben was intrigued.

“Yeah.” Sarah took a sip of her top-shelf whiskey and practically purred. “New Washington has the best. They’ve got food, enough booze to drown a battleship crew, and free VR entertainment.” She giggled at a memory.

Ben smiled too. It was nice to see a different side of the commander who constantly schooled him in VR scenarios and set near impossible standards.

“A lot of the people use it for porn, but most are smart enough to clear the cache before the next person comes in.” She laughed, and it sounded like spring church bells. “And that’s how I found out a retired captain had a particular fetish, which I was then able to leverage for a letter of recommendation that got me my first XO slot.”

“No, you did not.” Ben laughed along with her. “That sounds like a violation of our warrior ethos Commander Wythe.” He leaned back and sipped his own ridiculously expensive scotch.

“That’s the game.” Sarah replied, her eyes twinkling mischievously. “But I can’t lecture you about it. You’ve already got a command at your age and rank.” She motioned to the red stripe on his formal uniform. “I should probably be taking notes.”

Unlike the CMUs that soldiers and spacers routinely wore as their daily uniform, tonight’s events called for something a lot more formal. Most service members didn’t even bother purchasing the expensive and antiquated formal dress-blue uniform because unless you were flag rank or a very senior NCO the chances you’d ever wear one were slim to none. Dress CMUs usually cut it for everyone else.  Ben knew from previous parties that his father and the guests expected formal military dress. Luckily, Sarah had a set and had it up to standard.

The formal uniforms were a throwback to a long-lost age of military decorum. The modern uniform was smart and digitized. Service members didn’t need to spend hours making sure their uniform was perfect when they needed to be thinking about winning wars against a trained and determined enemy. Now, all you had to do was stick CMUs to your body and stand there. It was that simple.

The formal uniform was made of modern fabric, but it wasn’t smart. For males, it consisted of navy blue trousers with rank stripes, a white dress shirt, a bow tie, and a navy-blue jacket. For females, it was the same except the trousers were a knee length skirt. Both uniforms replaced the CMU boots with shiny black dress shoes.

All awards were actual medals which had to be spaced appropriately according to a regulation most didn’t even know existed. Name plates and unit designators were also present.

Sarah made the uniform look good. Not only because she was an attractive, fit woman, but also because she’d actually done things. She had a respectable row of medals over her left breast. The only thing Ben had that distinguished him as mildly important was the red command stripe. He only had a few medals, which looked insignificant next to the accomplished commanders.

Then again, they’d both be put to shame when they finally made it to the party.

The air-limo lurched and they began to accelerate enough that liquid almost sloshed out of Ben’s glass.

“They’ve opened up a VIP lane, Master Gold.” Geoffrey announced from the front.

“Thank you.”

<About time.> Ben thought as he looked out his window and saw the rear thrusters from a swarm of Spyder Assault Shuttles.

There were people far more important than a lowly lieutenant commander and commander attending the event.

The event itself was taking place at one of the large reception halls in the Upper City. Usually, these venues were used for stockholders’ meetings, corporate retreats, or any number of high priced gatherings. Tonight, the docking platform was draped in the blue and gold of the Commonwealth Armed Forces. Flags stood everywhere blowing in the wind, including several flags with the four or five golden stripes of admirals. Those flags went with those officers everywhere.

Sarah saw those flags, her eyes bugged out, and she quickly downed the last of her drink. “Don’t let me drink anymore for a little while.” She gripped his arm hard as they exited their limo.

Photographers from various news outlets snapped photos of everyone coming and going from the event. Ben wasn’t sure what they’d use the pictures for. It could be just another fluff piece or more likely an anti-elite indictment. Either way, a good picture would sell subscriptions.

“Are there always this many people?” Sarah’s eyes continued to bulge as they walked with a small crowd into a main hall that could fill thousands.

Expensive, hovering crystal chandeliers bounced light throughout the room. Rare and expensive artwork, donated by the wealthy attendees, adorned the gold-plated walls. The place was gaudy and lavished to the extreme. Ben didn’t like it, but he expected it.

“Benjamin!” A voice called out from nearby and a crowd parted to let the matriarch of the family through.

“Hello, mother.” Ben kissed Miranda Gold on her cheek.

“I’m so glad you could make it.” She held him at arm’s length and then turned to Sarah. “And who have you brought with you?” She smiled in a way that only a mother without grandchildren could.

“Mother, this is Commander Sarah Wythe. Sarah, this is my mother, Miranda Gold.”

Sarah had a solid fifteen centimeters on the shorter woman, but Miranda was clearly the dominant personality. You could see it in the body language. Sarah automatically deferred to Miranda. It was animalistic in nature.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Sarah.”

“No, I can’t believe I’m meeting you.” Sarah practically blabbered. “I’ve been following your career for years. The case you argued before Earth’s Supreme Court about employee benefits rights was incredible.”

Miranda’s smile brightened the room. “Thank you. I didn’t know anybody read or listened to those things.”

“I work in personnel, Ma’am.” Sarah regained control after her fan-girl gushing. “It’s always a good idea to keep up with what’s going on in the civilian world and how that might impact our talent management.”

“Very true.” Miranda gave Ben a sidelong look that said, <I approve.>

Which was something a young man didn’t want to see from his mother on something that wasn’t really a date.

“We’ll have to catch up and talk more. It was a pleasure to meet you, Sarah. Now I need to go make the rounds.”

“Nice to meet you too.” Sarah bounced up and down on her toes. Then she turned on Ben and looked like she was going to smack him in the arm. “You never told me that Miranda Gold was your mother.”

“You never asked.” Ben didn’t really know what to say. “And it’s all in my file.”

She ignored his excuse and continued to survey the hall.

“Shall we?” Ben extended his arm for her to take and started to expertly weave her through the crowd of social elites.

The trick to impressing these people was always remembering who they were and have a quick one-liner to say about them. PADs made it easy to do this, but making sure that person didn’t see you were looking at your PAD to remember them was the trick. Being in the military always helped with this. Since Ben was slated for deployment he’d been on the list to get upgraded to a sub-dermal PAD.

The upgrade, which didn’t interfere with the use of a standard polyplast PAD, turned Ben’s forearm into a biological screen. When wearing his CMUs the data would be transmitted through the smart fabric. In the formal dress uniform a quick watch-checking motion and Ben was able to get the approaching socialites information.

“Benny, made it!” The voice immediately grated on Ben’s nerves.

“Are we really going to do this here.” Another voice drawled.

“Just be nice, Dillion.” A third chimed in.

Suddenly, Ben found himself surrounded by the rest of the Gold children. Dillion stood there smirking like an idiot. Lillian looked bored and slightly drunk with her silver skin gleaming, and Hope looked defensive. She didn’t want the family gathering turning ugly right away.

“Always nice to see you, Dillion.” It took everything Ben had to take the high road.

“Lillian, Hope.” He gave his sister and half-sister kisses on the cheek, and pulled Hope in for a long hug. “Everyone, this is Commander Sarah Wythe. Sarah, this is my sister Hope, my half-sister Lillian, and my half-brother Dillion.”

“How did Benny get such a gorgeous date?” Dillion smirked, taking Sarah’s hand and brushing his lips against it.

Thankfully, Sarah didn’t seem the least bit interested in the guy kissing her hand.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold and I know each other from work,” she replied, turning her attention to Hope and Lillian. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Dillion got the clue quickly that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with Sarah, so he disappeared into the crowd to annoy someone else. Surprisingly, she hit it off quickly with Lillian and Hope. Apparently, Sarah had a deeper fashion knowledge than Ben thought possible from anyone who knew the specifications of a battlecruiser by memory. Sarah was also honestly interested in the new education initiative Hope was helping the family business with.

Both of his sisters gave him the same approving glance that their mother had.

“Benjamin.” His father seemed to appear out of thin air, which was an accomplishment since Curtis was his constant shadow and was even bigger than Ben.

“Father.” Their greeting was stiff. They hadn’t talked since their agreement was made several months ago.

“Please come with me. There is someone I’d like you to meet.”

Ben knew better than to make a scene, so he quickly excused himself and followed his father to a small gathering of men in navy-blue uniforms.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” Thomas Gold called out.

The group turned and Ben recognized Rear Admiral Helms, now a Rear Admiral promotable. Ben’s father’s leverage was enough to get the man the votes he needed to get his fifth stripe. Helms gave Ben a brief nod.

The small group consisted of the senior staff of First Fleet and its commander, Admiral Duvall.

“Gentlemen, this is my son. Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold.”

Ben felt like his head was on the chopping block, and his father had purposefully put it there.

The Rear Admirals and Admiral scrutinized him like a piece of livestock before Helms finally saved him. “Offering up your youngest son as the sacrificial lamb for the sake of a conversation starter. I’d hate to ever negotiate against you, Thomas.” That got the group laughing, and took the attention away from Ben.

“Can’t a father want his son to meet the boss. I’m told a junior officer rarely gets to make an impression on a flag officer.”

“That’s true.” Admiral Duvall spoke up and silenced his staff. “It’s nice to meet you Lieutenant Commander. You’re dismissed.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ben had to remind himself not to salute and did a perfect about-face and marched away from the senior fleet brass in the Sol System.

<I am going to kill him.> Ben fumed as he made his way over to the bar.

Things could have been a lot worse if he wasn’t shipping out to a whole different fleet soon. Admiral Duvall was an old school hardass known for not liking the thing Ben’s father had just done. There was no question that Thomas Gold knew that, which meant he was making sure to cut any strings to the fleet Ben might have once their deal was complete. Thomas wanted his son with Gold Technologies when this was all over, and he was willing to piss off a full admiral to do it.

<I cannot wait to get out of here.> Ben accepted the scotch and whiskey he’d ordered and headed back to where he’d left Sarah.

She wasn’t there when he arrived.

“Hope, where is Sarah?”

“Out on the veranda,” she replied, pointing across the room.

Ben carved a path through the party’s attendees to get to the French double-doors. The veranda was still crowded, but it was cool and had clean air thanks to the scrubber and AC dedicated specifically to this space. It was as lavishly decorated as the rest of the hall, so they couldn’t have it smelling like a sewer.

He found Sarah leaning against a wrought-iron railing and looking out over the Upper City.

“Hey.” He handed her the whiskey and joined her. “It’s a great view.” He stated when the silence became awkward. “I always loved the view when…”

“Oh shut up.” She silenced him by grabbing the front of his jacket, pulling him in close, and kissing him.

Ben didn’t even think. He kissed her back.

Military standards, societal implications, their working relationship; he ignored them all because he’d wanted to do this for a very long time.

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