Two Worlds – Chapter 227

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop took a deep breath and focused. His heart thudded rhythmically in his chest as he let his mind’s eye narrow so the entire universe was contained within the confines of his scope. He tried to let his thoughts flow freely and not focus on anything. He wanted to simply be in the moment, as stupid as that sounded, but that was what Eve advised was required for a good sniper. Coop would never be a great sniper, he knew that, and their last training exercise had clearly demonstrated that.

Coop did not have the patience for that type of work. He’d approached the target area from several different angles and each time the spotters had located him. Meanwhile, the rest of the team had taken their shots and only Sullivan and SSG Hightower were spotted. Sullivan got ribbed by the rest of his Ranger buddies, but he didn’t bitch as he jogged back to the LOD to start the stalk again. He passed on try number two, as did the SSG. Coop failed during times two and three. Four was his lucky number, and even then, he wasn’t sure if the spotters were just letting him slide by because they’d been out all night and wanted to go back to base. He could feel their pity when he marched back into the camp they were packing up.

<Fuck them.> He didn’t want to show them he gave two shits about what they thought, but he didn’t think they bought it. Deep down, he was pissed.

It wasn’t necessarily the sniper thing. Stalking clearly wasn’t his thing, and he could live with that, but on tries two and three he’d totally missed the target; one from nineteen hundred and twenty meters and the other from a paltry eighteen-ten. Try number four had been a success from eighteen-twenty five, but only because he’d been able to identify his weakness: dealing with vertical change.

Coop no longer believed that being a sniper was easy, and the Rangers were just blowing smoke up his ass. He knew there was science and art behind the lethal skill, and it was a skill he was trying to get better on. In his free time he’d started hitting the ranges. Sometimes Eve would join him, but today he was alone and trying to remedy his weakness.

He started with close-up targets to build confidence. He hit fourteen hundred and fifteen hundred meters dead center with elevation changes each time. The range was designed to throw all different scenarios at the shooters, and although frustrating, Coop knew the variables were making him a better shooter.

As he sighted in on the two thousand meter target he went through his mantra of the fundamentals, <check the externals, proper position, good trigger control, proper breathing.> The ranges externals were more controlled, but there was some wind to deal with, and his Truthfinder helped gauge how multiple terrain features along the bullets projected flight path would affect the shot.

His position was good, he’d been working on his trigger pull, and he felt his breathing was getting better. He didn’t know if the IOR’s integration with his brain was making it easier to focus and avoid distractions, but Coop felt like he was able to achieve a Zen-like focus quicker than ever before. Since he’d never achieved a Zen-like state, except maybe mid-orgasm, he didn’t have a good benchmark to work off of, but it sure felt like he was getting better.

His IOR displayed the Truthfinder’s readings so he never had to take his eye off the target: a holographic representation of a Blockie soldier standing guard by a gate. The simulation could make the guard march around and act more like a human being, but Coop was taking baby steps, and the guard remained static.

Coop waited for his breathing to hit the right point and gently squeezed the trigger; not pull. The soft recoil caught him by surprise, but then his eyes automatically went back down range. The Blockie holo was on the ground. Coop quickly replayed the shot recorded by his Truthfinder over his IOR. He slowed it down and watched the round come in frame by frame. When the round hit the Blockie hologram, it pulverized the electronic soldier’s hip flexor. While the wound was incredibly painful, and maybe mortal, it was off target.

<Shit.> Coop sighed and put his head down on his forearm. Even though his eyes were closed and buried in his arm, his IOR still relayed the information behind his eyelids, and he watched the hit twice more. <Well at least I hit him.> Coop looked for the silver lining. It was the longest shot he’d been able to hit anything at before.

With the M3 back at basic the standard weapon’s qualification had soldiers going out to one thousand meters. Only the best shooters could hit the targets with the rudimentary M3 at that distance. That’s why they got the Expert Badge. Coop thought he’d been one of those shooters, and he’d finally earned an Expert Badge, but now that he’d taken two kilometer shots, it felt like every meter over the one kilometer mark was a struggle. Eve had scored her kill at the training event from twenty-two hundred meters, and it had been a head shot. That’s why he’d gone to her for advice, and that’s why he’d been able to hit the guy at…he hit the range finder again…<Two thousand eight meters.> He mentally recorded his new personal best. <A hit is a hit.> He was focused on confidence building and didn’t need the lecture that the enemy rarely allowed you to easily kill them, but that was why he was taking baby steps.

He reset the simulation by hitting a few buttons on the terminal next to him. The range was not integrated with the IOR, so he had to break his firing position to go again. Then he settled back down for the task of getting back on target. The externals changed, the Blockie guard was in a different place, and the elevation was slightly different. The range finder came back with a two thousand one meter distance. It wasn’t a personal best, but Coop focused on taking a better shot.

Five minutes of prep later he was ready to make the shot. He controlled his breathing, slowly began to squeeze the trigger, and…

{PRIORITY MESSAGE… ORDERS ATTACHED… ALL SPLITSTREAM RAPID RESPONSE TEAM TWO PERSONNEL REPORT TO CONFERENCE ROOM D IMMEDIATLY FOR BRIEFING.} Flashed across his vision a split-second before the round left the chamber.

“Son of a bitch!” Coop cursed. His round was off target by a good six meters.  He took a moment to seethe before acknowledging the read receipt for the message and packing up his kit. He’d need to stow the rifle in his locker before he went to the conference room.

His IOR popped up with the quickest path to get to where he was going and an estimated time based on his routine walking pace. The time adjusted up and down depending on Coop’s speed. Coop grimaced at the information and swiped it away with his eyes. He didn’t need every facet of his life marginalized and micro-analyzed by a poop-nugget in his brain. The IOR was great for some things and incredibly frustrating in others. He could just imagine a mid-sex countdown clock to ejaculation popping up in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable activity.

<No thanks.> Coop made sure he adjusted the sensitivity settings of the biological software to its lowest setting before heading out.

It took him about twenty minutes to jog back from the range, secure his gear, and make it to the conference room in the administrative building at the center of the base. He opened up the orders before he arrived to scan them so he didn’t go into the brief blind.

“Thanks for joining us, Cooper. Take a seat.” The SGM was leading the briefing because all the officers were off on another mission. It didn’t seem like a dig at Coop. While on duty, the SGM’s IOR had some command authorizations. One of those was that he knew where his people were at all times, so he knew Coop was at the range practicing.

“Now that we’re all here let’s get started.” A star chart appeared at the center of the table. One point lit up that was quickly recognizable as New Savannah. Then the map zoomed out, and a second point was highlighted.

Coop looked at the star chart’s legend to make sure his IOR wasn’t malfunctioning.

“This is the Hegemony system identified in your orders as The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude; or at least that’s the human translation.” He held up a hand as Coop opened his mouth to ask a question. “Hold your questions until the end. We have been ordered to rendezvous with a delegation from New Washington at Thurgood Station in the Rim before heading out on a diplomatic mission to the Golden City. Apparently, the ETs auditing the Commonwealth are finished and we’re being welcomed into the Hegemony.”

<Or something like that.> Coop had known the SGM long enough to know the expression on his face said he thought this was a questionable mission at best.

“Minister of Commerce Harrington will be leading the small delegation and we will be pulling security. Each team will handle a different element of our security plan. Gunney, you and Alpha will handle far security, and Bravo will handle close. I will be attached to Alpha, and Lieutenant Wentworth will be with Bravo to interface with the Minister. Packets are going out to you now with more details. We’ll run through some simulation training over the next week before departure.  Argo will be back by then, and she’ll be our ride. Questions?”

Coop’s hand shot into the air. “What kind of name is The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude; especially that last bit? It’s a little foreboding if you ask me.”

Most people rolled their eyes, but a newly recovered Mike, still on light duty, nodded his agreement.

“I don’t make the names and this Hegemony has been around for tens of thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands, so don’t go pissing them off. You understand, Sergeant?”

“Yes, Sergeant Major. Don’t piss off the ETs. Roger that.”

 

***

 

Hailey Armstrong

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

Hailey posted up outside the door of the residential home. It was nice, in an upper-middle class neighborhood, and looked like a mid-level executive should live there. That wasn’t what her intel indicated. This place was a cook house that was hiding in plain sight.

She’d gotten the intel from a police officer they had on the payroll. Hailey had turned the man first by fucking him and making sure it was all recorded and ready to go to his wife. His wife came from money, so if she found out about his bi-weekly affairs he’d be shit out of luck. The blackmail was the stick, and the payroll was the carrot. They kept him well paid to the point they didn’t need to blackmail him, and like a good little doggie he’d relayed the intel so PFH could get there before the fuzz.

Hailey’s team was the same team she’d used to grab the two arms dealers a few weeks ago. She’d put them together from approved available personnel, and they’d gelled well over the past several months, so going into the house was a well-rehearsed maneuver.

The bumper defeated the lock’s software and the lead man threw the door open and burst inside. They quickly swept their assigned sectors of fire based on the plans grabbed from planetary records, and proceeded to repeat the same tactic throughout the house. The only problem was they didn’t find anything.

“Clear.” Her team relaxed a fraction and waited for her to make the call. She was easily the youngest among them, but she was the PFH Asset Protection agent. They were freelancers hired by the organization, maybe even aspiring to join it, but the chain of command was clear. The buck stopped with her.

Hailey scanned the large, main room and took a deep breath. Parts of her enhancements were stimulated senses. Not too much, because that would drive her insane, but enough to pick up what normal people wouldn’t. She took several deep breaths as she walked and detected a faint hint of chemicals. It could be cleaning products, but the room was basically deserted with a thin layer of dust covering everything. She surveyed several rooms, but the smell was the strongest in the main room.

She was so concentrated on smelling that she nearly missed the slight squeak. She back tracked a few steps and applied more pressure. The squeak was more pronounced, but the floor looked just like it did anywhere else, so Hailey reached into her tactical vest a pulled out a small vile. She poured the specifically programmed nanites onto the ground and waited. They were like grains of sand moving around until the scene started to take shape.

Nanites were a great way to hide stuff. They would fill in cracks, hide creases, and make it appear that something like a door wasn’t there. The nanites Hailey dropped were programmed to search and destroy other nanites within a two-meter radius, and as they got to work it was clear someone was trying to hide a trapdoor to a basement.

Within a minute it was clear, and Hailey’s teammate put a bumper on the lock. A few seconds after that there was a sizzling as the lock was overpowered by the powerful bumper, and the door popped open. The same teammate grabbed the handle and opened it a fraction so Hailey could toss a flash bang grenade down there. She didn’t know what was waiting for them, and she wasn’t going to take any chances.

The ground rumbled beneath them as the shockwaves from the grenade expanded, and a heartbeat after that Hailey jumped down through the trapdoor. The fall was a little farther than expected, but her enhancements allowed her to handle it.

<Damn,> was her first thought as a full-on lab came into view. She’d expected a few idiots cooking up some synthetics with a third-grade chemistry set. The result would be lots of overdoses, more attention from law enforcement, and a decrease in customers. That was something PFH couldn’t allow on top of people cutting in on their market share.

She swept the space quickly and identified two men. One was in a lab coat with protective gear, obviously the cook, and the other was reaching for… Hailey didn’t care what he was going for. She put a round from her silence pistol through his forehead and he dropped like a stone. The cook didn’t even register that his bodyguard/friend/whoever was dead before Hailey was throwing him to the ground.

“Sweep the room,” she commanded. “Test the product.” If it was quality or novel they would take the cook back with them to answer to the Boss. If not they’d kill the cook, torch his supply, and blame it all on a careless man trying to play with forces outside his control. Plenty of idiots died trying to synthesize good drugs. The cops wouldn’t look any deeper into it.

The cook shook his head, opened his mouth angrily to protest his handling, and then froze when he saw the barrel of Hailey’s weapon a few centimeters from his eye. She didn’t have to say anything. He quietly complied.

“This is good shit,” one of her team replied gruffly as the tester he’d brought lit up green like a Christmas tree.

Hailey looked at the results and then back down at the cook. “You’re coming with us.” The cook didn’t argue. He knew he didn’t have a say in how this played out, so he didn’t even think of lying when Hailey hesitated, took out her PAD, and showed him a picture. “Have you seen this guy?”

The cook was even more surprised he had. “Yes. One of my people sells to him every other day at a motel on the outskirts of the East Side. I can give you the data if you’re lenient.”

“That’s not my call,” Hailey replied, but then hesitated. “I’ll put in a good word though.”

The cook nodded and transmitted the data under close surveillance. Any shenanigans and he’d end up like his friend. Hailey looked down at the smug face of Noah Grisham and silently seethed for a moment. She wanted the guy dead for the way he’d demeaned her, but she couldn’t touch him at the moment.

<Thankfully, I know someone who’ll do the work for me.> When she’d finished with the cook, she’d call the number Coop gave her and set another meeting.

Sometimes it was good to have friends with military-grade enhancements, training, and a desire to get their hands dirty.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 222

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

“Hello?” Coop finally asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Talk about what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

“Good copy,” Eve’s voice replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 220

Hailey Armstrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 218

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

“Is that your story?” The detective said from across the solid metal table.

Coop gave the man a once over and tried not to laugh. The man was trying to intimidate Coop into saying something. What that something was, Coop had no idea, but the detective wasn’t the person to do it. The guy was well on his way to a beer gut, about thirty centimeters shorter, and had a mustache that looked like it belonged in a porno. The more Coop thought about it, the more he wondered why anyone would grow facial hair on New Savannah. Having your face sweat profusely didn’t seem like a smart idea.

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” Coop looked over his shoulder at GYSGT Cunningham. The detective might not be intimidating, but his former Basic instructor made up for that. She hadn’t said a word during the whole interrogation.

The cops who’d arrived at the Oasis after the shooting said it was a debrief, but Coop knew the difference. This was definitely an interrogation, and the detective proved it a second later when he burst out of his chair and started screaming.

“Do you expect me to believe that shit?! Are you seriously going to sit there and tell me that your mission was blown because one of the whores recognized you from back home on Earth, kicked you over a railing, and then you got in a shootout with the establishment’s security.” Spittle flew as the man yelled, and some of it stuck to the mustache.

Coop tried not to roll his eyes as the man continued to fume. Coop could feel the GYSGT’s cold gaze on his back, and hoped that she believed him. He’d explained exactly what happened and left nothing out.

“If you don’t trust me…fine,” Coop cut in when the detective’s face was red from exertion and he needed to draw a breath. “Just check the building’s camera footage. That should clear everything up, and for the love of god, say it don’t spray it.”

Coop thought that would give the detective another conniption, but it did just the opposite.

“The business that you shot up doesn’t have cameras, and even if they did, we would need a warrant to obtain them. As police officers we have rules, unlike whatever the hell you are.”

Coop had to give the overweight man that point. The cop didn’t know who Coop was. All he knew was that their captain had received a call from someone high in their own government that stated Coop was not to be charged with anything. That was great for Coop, but that didn’t mean the detective wasn’t going to hold him and try to milk him for information before he was released.

Coop was about to respond when the GYSGT beat him to it. “That’s suspicious.” The two words seemed to startle the detective. Cunningham had just been standing there silently in the corner, and he’d forgotten she was there. “This isn’t a backwater planet right after terraforming. There is no reason a business as profitable as the Oasis claims itself to be should not have some type of surveillance on the premises.”

“It doesn’t matter…”

“Of course it matters,” she cut the detective off. “The absence of something sometimes indicates something in itself. In our case, the absence of surveillance means that the Oasis didn’t want their activities captured and stored.”

“That may be the case.” The detective cooled down a bit and acknowledged the point. “But there is nothing we can do about it. The Oasis has the proper permits, is licensed as a leisurely club, and isn’t breaking any laws. Even the armed security on the premises are all licensed and on the up and up. They were responding to a disturbance, a disturbance they said your man started.”

“I didn’t start it,” Coop stated for the thousandth time. “She started it by kicking me over the railing, and some dude shot my friend with a laser pistol. Maybe we should look into that a little.”

Both the GYSGT and detective stopped their conversation and look at Coop with the same expression. That expression clear told him to shut the fuck up.

<Fine.> Coop leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms across his chest defensively. <You two figure it out.>

Eventually they did figure it out. Cunningham promised that they would remain available for questioning, but since the planetary brass decided no charges were being levied, Coop was free to go.

“You know where to find me.” Coop gave the man one last poke as he exited the “debrief” room.

The man sneered back but didn’t reply. A car was waiting for them at the front of the local precinct, and it took them back to the base via a roundabout way. Their path could be backtracked through the satellites watching overhead, but Coop was pretty sure the GYSGT was making sure they didn’t have a tail. After all, no one other than the security guards had been apprehended at the scene.

They passed through the gate without incident and went directly to the HQ building. Coop wanted to go see Mike at the base hospital, but the GYSGT wasn’t having any of it. She escorted him inside and through several secure areas. It took a moment until Coop knew where they were headed.

“Oh come on, Gunney. I just got finished with one of these,” Coop complained as she opened another door to find the SGM and S2 LCDR sitting there waiting for him.

“Sit,” the SGM stated, and Coop obeyed. “Tell us what happened and don’t fuck around.”

Coop didn’t even dream of playing with the SGM, and he told the story. It just happened to be the same story he told the local cops because that was the truth.

“Her name is Hailey Armstrong. We grew up together in the Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis back on Earth. She was kind of my girlfriend. I didn’t expect in a million years to ever run into her again.”

The SGM and LCDR remained silent, but the GYSGT couldn’t help but chuckle. “You need to keep it in your pants Cooper. That thing between your legs keeps getting you in trouble.”

The LCDR ignored the GYSGT and tapped away on her PAD. “Is this her?” She showed Coop the screen.

“No.” The woman on the screen was big, had a scar, and was nowhere near as beautiful as Hailey.

“So this is her.” The LCDR swiped and a second image came into focus.

Unlike the first image, this one was taken from a distance and didn’t grab facial features well. On top of that, the person was wearing sunglasses and a hat. That didn’t leave Coop much to work with, but he scrutinized the picture closely.

“I think that is her. She’s changed since the PHA. She’s fifteen centimeters taller, probably has another fifteen-to-twenty kilos on her, and she kicks like a fucking mule.” Coop absentmindedly rubbed his chest. “She’s got bigger titties…I mean…she’s had breast enhancements, but I’d say that’s her.” Coop slid the PAD back to the LCDR.

The LCDR gave the SGM a nod and left the room. That left Coop alone with those in his chain of command. These were the people that could really ruin his day.

“I’m not going to tell you congratulations, Sergeant. Your primary objective was to infiltrate the establishment and gather intelligence. You got made, and worse, got into a gunfight with local security, so you failed your mission.” The SGM deadpanned, which hit Coop harder than he thought it would. “But we’re infantrymen, Sergeant. We make do with what we’re given and we adapt and overcome. You failed your initial mission, but you’ve gained some useful intelligence while presenting us with an unforeseen opportunity.”

“What?” Coop stared at the SGM in confusion. He’d expected the ass chewing to continue.

“The S2 was able to pick through all of the legal loopholes and identified that the Oasis is a franchise of a subsidiary, of another subsidiary, of an LLC, that is a child company owned by a parent company that was inherited by the son of the son-in-law of Madame Putinski herself.” The SGM seemed impressed at that fact.

“What?” Coop repeated, sounding even stupider in his own ears.

The GYSGT sighed from behind Coop, and the SGM just shook his head. “Madame Putinski has been under investigation by the Commonwealth for close to seventy years for everything from illegal drug synthesis, to distribution, to racketeering, prostitution, and even murder. The first photo the Lieutenant Commander showed you was for the recently identified manager of the Oasis, and we believe, Putinski crime family boss of Savannah City, or even the whole planet.” The SGM stopped to let the gravity of the situation set in. “The second photo is of a still unidentified underling in the organization’s Asset Protection department.”

“You mean like shoplifting.” Coop remembered the term from the mega stores that his father got enough money to go to once every five years or so.

“I mean they protect the organization’s assets. That could be laundered money, drug houses, illegal labs, or in our case prostitutes.” The SGM made a flick and Hailey’s disguised photo floated in the air in front of them.

“I might be wrong here, but last time I checked isn’t prostitution legal on New Savannah?” Coop asked.

He wasn’t being completely truthful. He knew prostitution was legal on the planet. It was something he checked on every new planet he arrived on. Laws concerning mankind’s oldest profession were something handled down at the planetary level. The Commonwealth didn’t hold any sway over it aside from taxation. On most worlds it was legal as long as the business was registered, the workers were routinely tested and cleared by a medical professional, and they paid their taxes. The profession tended to be illegal on planets with a strong religious connection. Coop knew it was illegal in the Papal States, Maccabee Alliance, New Caliphate, and a dozen or so other planets scattered throughout Commonwealth space, but they tended to be the exception, not the rule.

Since it was legal on New Savannah, Coop wondered what the planetary authorities, or even the Commonwealth, wanted with Hailey.

“It is legal, but the Putinski’s frequently use legitimate businesses to funnel money from other less reputable sources. Due to the incident, which we have you to thank for, the Commonwealth’s forensic accountants are going through Oasis’ books. Anything out of the ordinary and they’ll seize the assets, arrest the workers, and follow the money trail. In this regard, your little fight could have cracked open a big case for them.” The SGM finally cracked a smile. It was a small one, but it was still one nonetheless.

“So,” Coop leaned back and relaxed a little, “I guess you could say I did a good job.”

“Fuck no!” the GYSGT shouted, and Coop almost fell out of his chair. “You failed in your mission. Falling right into a positive situation doesn’t reflect on you more than the circumstances. Getting lucky doesn’t make you a good soldier, Cooper.”

<I respectfully disagree.> Coop thought. It had been lucky that he’d been kicked over the railing by Hailey. That wasn’t what he thought at the moment, but after seeing how Mike got barbequed by whoever was in that room, Coop realized luck played a big part in staying alive in this line of work.

“Regardless of how you landed in this situation,” the SGM regained control of the conversation, “we are going to exploit the opportunity. I’m sending you back to the Oasis to make contact with Hailey Armstrong. We want you to gain any intel she may have and relay it to us.”

“Umm…how do I put this so I don’t get yelled at,” Coop wondered out loud. “I know Hailey. She’s loyal. She’s not going to turn on anyone, so trying to gain intel on the Putinski’s is a waste of time.” Coop expected the GYSGT to come down on him, but she didn’t. She and the SGM just waited expectantly for him to continue. “I suggest we stay in our lane. The SRRT is here to get the people that orchestrated and carried out the terrorist attack. I should pursue that avenue of intelligence.”

The SGM and GYSGT shared a quick look and nodded. “Proceed at your discretion, Sergeant.” The SGM passed Coop a new PAD. “Give her this to make contact.”

<Do they just have a box of these lying around somewhere?> Coop took the new PAD and slowly got up to leave. When no one yelled at him to sit his ass back down, he exited the S2’s secure office.

Thirty minutes later he was standing back in front of the Oasis, and an angry security guard, who Coop recognized as one of the ones that was shooting at him a few hours ago, looked to be itching to draw his weapon and finish the job.

“For the last time I don’t know who the fuck this Hailey is.” Despite his anger, the guard was sticking to the company line.

They’d been going back and forth for a couple of minutes, and the guy wasn’t budging on letting Coop in. “Fine!” Coop sighed. “Just give her this and tell her to call me.” Coop extended the PAD.

“I’m not taking that.” The guard made no motion to take it.

“For fuck’s sake,” Coop took out a slip of polyplast and scrolled a number on it. Coop’s barely legible handwriting straightened to form an easily identifiable call number. “Tell Hailey to call me on this number. I just want to talk, and I think it can be in both of our best interests. Tell her this is no bullshit.”

No bullshit held special meaning to Coop and Hailey. It went all the way back to their time in the PHA.  On top of fucking each other, they liked to fuck with each other to the point it was hard to tell what was real and what was a prank. Saying “no bullshit” was their code to tell the other person they weren’t screwing around. Coop hoped that would get the point across to her.

“Seriously,” Coop pressed the point. “Tell her this is no bullshit. Tell her those exact words…no bullshit.” Coop realized he might sound a little crazy, but if this was the only way he was going to get to her, then he didn’t want some low-level grunt fucking it up.

The guard in question didn’t say anything. He didn’t confirm or deny Hailey presence. He just grabbed the polyplast slip and told Coop to fuck off.

<That’s the best I can hope for.> Coop gave the other man a nod and headed back to his taxi. He really wanted a drink, but he knew he needed to get back to base.

It had been an interesting last few days, but the SGM wasn’t letting up on their SSRT training. Since the mission against the terrorists was a part success-part failure, he’d set up some more conventional training exercises for them to partake in.

Coop was fine with that. He’d finally be getting to put his V4 through its paces. Any more cloak and dagger shit could wait until later. Coop wanted to get back to what he was good at: blowing shit up in a big suit of armor. He enjoyed being the baddest motherfucker on the battlefield.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 217

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

The kick caught Coop by surprise. He mentally berated himself for that. He was supposed to be a top-tier operator of a covert team working with the latest technological innovations. Instead, he’d been distracted by a pretty face.

<It’s not any face.> He barely registered the railing hitting him in the lower back and the momentum driving him over it.

The face itself was different, along with the body. The Hailey Coop remembered had been smaller and thinner, but despite that, there were some things that hadn’t changed. The first were the eyes. Those amber pools were exotic as hell back in the PHA. Since leaving that festering shit hole, Coop had seen much more exotic. Hell, he’d even fucked a chick that’d dyed her skin blue for whatever reason. Hailey’s eyes weren’t as exotic anymore, but he remembered every detail of them. He’d stared into them on many occasions, and during many different situations, for years. You remembered stuff like that.

Second was the voice. Electronic voice modulation or simply biological manipulation of the voice box could change a person’s voice easy enough. Hailey hadn’t done that. Coop would recognize that voice anywhere. She must have gone through a similar process in trying to identify him. He wasn’t a skinny little PHA Rat anymore either, but her reaction was totally different. He wanted to ask her how she was, what she’d been doing, and how she got to New Savannah. The planet didn’t have a reputation for a cheap standard of living.

She, on the other hand, reacted with violence, and Coop’s complacency was rapidly catching up to him with gravity’s assistance. He heard the whine of an energy weapon powering up just before he hit the ground. He tensed and tried to twist and rotate to keep his head from impacting. The thump and spasm of pain that ran through his arm indicated he’d at least succeeded in that, but he had new problems to worry about.

He rolled, and came up to see his head had missed the edge of the fountain by centimeters. That sent a shiver down his spine. He might be a super soldier, but falling half a dozen meters and smashing his head on an edge like that would have fucked him up. He only had a fraction of a second to think about that before the snap of a round passing close to him pulled him back to his present shitty situation. A round fired by one of the guards stationed around the room impacted the water in the fountain, sending a wet spray into his mouth and face. The second hit the opposite edge of the fountain and faux-rock shrapnel exploded from the point of impact. The third would have taken Coop in the neck if he didn’t duck and roll.

He maneuvered around the fountain to maintain cover and concealment, but it would only last for so long. There was more than one guard in the room and they were converging on him from many different directions. He didn’t have a weapon, he didn’t have options, so he didn’t have a choice. He needed to move and hope that guards weren’t the best shot.

He looked around and saw his best bet. The bar was only about fifteen meters away and people were scattering at the sound of gunshots. That would give him a little cover if the guards cared about their guests, which wasn’t a given.

One guy wasn’t fleeing though. Coop recognized him as the soldier-type fellow from the bar. He calmly leaned against the bar, drank his booze, and laughed at Coop’s predicament. Coop identified him as a threat, but the guy wasn’t shooting at him, so he was less of a threat than the guard converging on his position.

<Fuck it!> Coop couldn’t wait any longer. He braced one foot on the fountain’s base, got the other foot out in front of him in a sprinter’s stance, and pushed off with all his strength.

The guard’s anticipation of catching him as they rounded the corner, and his surprising speed, caught them off guard. They fired, despite the people scurrying for cover, and their first rounds were well behind him. Coop knew as well as anyone that fifteen meters might not seem like a lot of space, but it seemed to stretch on for an eternity when someone was trying to kill you. Eventually, the guards were going to adjust.

Coop slowed down for a moment as he bowled over two fleeing men in front of him. They looked like normal guys, and his enhanced frame smashing into them sent them flying, but that second cost him. Rounds started to fly all around him, and impacted behind the bar. Genuine glass and polyplast exploded as the high-velocity darts of the guard’s weapons destroyed them and the mural of a tropical sunset that filled the wall behind it.

Coop felt a pain and a burning sensation in his leg, but he didn’t slow down. He vaulted the bar like an Olympic athlete, and turned his good shoulder toward the wall. His speed was a disadvantage now, but he took the impact as best he could, putting a big dent in the wall before falling behind the cover of the bar itself.

<Thank god that wasn’t a shitty wall.> If it had been cheap construction he would have likely gotten stuck in it and killed. He pushed that aside of he considered his possible courses of action.

“Hey, Janice,” he said casually to the bartender who was cowering next to where he’d landed. The previously flirty woman scowled back and put as much space between her and him as possible. He got a good look at her ass as she crawled away, but he was sure that was as far as he would get with her.

He shook his head and focused back on his surroundings. With his thoughts still slightly on Hailey, his old PHA Rat ways came back to him a little. He’d been spoiled by the infantry, especially the HI, and without his armor and high-tech toys he needed to go old school. Coop reached underneath the bar where the cheap shit was usually kept. The high-priced booze was usually on the shelves to show patrons how fancy the joint was, but those bottles were all shattered. That was ok. The cheap stuff would do just fine.

He grabbed a rag that was lined with microscopic cleaning nanites that bartenders had used to wipe down glasses since the beginning of time, and stuff one end in the top of an open bottle. He turned the bottle upside down to get the end nice and wet. Then he found a small butane torch that bartenders used for some of the fancier drinks, and lit the opposite end of the rag. It held out against the flame for a few seconds as the nanites did their best to do what they were programmed to do, but eventually they were burned away and the rag caught.

Since Coop jumped over the bar about eight seconds had passed, and as long as the guards weren’t fucking morons, they’d be pushing their tactical advantage. Coop needed to buy time, so he lobbed the centuries-old Molotov cocktail up and over the bar. The bottle broke on the other side and the flames started to spread. He just hoped it was enough.

Coop tried to think of a way out as his hands hurriedly made another improvised fire bomb. He was just about to toss it when someone stuck their weapon over the bar and started to fire. Coop tried to pull back but he wasn’t quicker than a bullet. A round went through the middle of his foot.

More pain set his nerves on fire, but he was sure it was a through-and-through wound. In the grand scheme of things, taking a round in the foot wasn’t the worst that could happen. He could still fight, and the idiot who was firing blind had just given him an opportunity. He reached up, grabbed the man by the weapon and pulled him over the bar.

The guard cursed as he tried to resist, but Coop was far stronger and was able to brace against the bar’s foundation. The guy came up and over while Coop twisted. The guard’s wrist broke and he lost the weapon as he fell head first to the floor. That dazed the guy, and let Coop react. He could have shot the asshole in the face, but he wasn’t sure if he should. With all the investigations happening since the terrorist attack, and the ones that were going to result from this clusterfuck, he didn’t need more people looking to closely at him. So, instead of ending the guard, Coop just kicked him firmly in the face. It still royally fucked up the man, Coop made sure he was fugly for life, but the guy was still alive.

Coop now had a weapon, and it looked like the guards were waiting to see if their buddy was going to come out on top. They didn’t have a problem firing into the crowd of fleeing patrons, but with one of their own in the mix they held their fire. Coop used the time to finish the second Molotov and chucked it when maneuvering. He popped up from behind the bar away from where the second cocktail landed, and tried to hit, or at least suppress, the guards. He got one in the shoulder, and counted three more before he had to duck back down.

What he didn’t see, and what scared him a lot more than the three remaining guards, was Mike. His big buddy should have been getting in on the action, but he was nowhere to be seen. Coop knew nothing would keep his battle buddy from jumping into the fray to help, so whatever it was must be serious. That added a whole other element to the situation. He needed to move and move quick.

Sirens started to wail above and foam shot down from the ceiling like thickly packed snow to smother the flames. Coop used the distraction to vault the bar again and make for a nearby door. Surprisingly, no rounds reached out to try and bring him down, but that didn’t mean he slowed down. He hit the door at a full run and crashed through to the other side. The hallway looked empty, but Coop didn’t trust it, so he beat down another door until it relented and he got better cover.

<Any day now guys.> Coop and Mike hadn’t entered the Oasis with any communications gear because it would have been picked up by the revolving door’s scanners. However, there had to be people streaming out of the place, yelling about a fire, and if the suppression system went off then it must have triggered some alarm. With all of that going on, the rest of Bravo Team acting as the QRF should be in the building any second.

As if on cue, Coop heard loud voices yelling from the other room. He gave it a few seconds to see if any gunfire was exchanged, but when it wasn’t he felt it was ok to come out. He stepped out of his little hiding place and was immediately cold cocked by what felt like a battleship at full speed. He crashed to the floor while his head spun and stars overwhelmed his vision. Instinct brought the weapon up and fired a few times in the direction he’d been attacked, but he didn’t know if he’d hit anything until he blinked away the bright lights clouding his vision. He didn’t see anyone, so he’d missed. He flexed his jaw experimentally. It hurt like a bitch, but it wasn’t broken. Whoever hit him had been tough and fast.

“Cooper!” Eve’s voice breached the mental fugue threatening his head. It was possible he had a minor concussion too, but he focused on her voice and hobbled toward the door he’d smashed through just a minute before.

“I’m here.” He emerged to a scene of destruction. A few bodies of patrons were down. Sullivan was looking them over while the SGM watched the guards and Eve looked for him. It seemed when presented with more opponents, the men surrendered without a fight.

<Chicken shits.> Coop spat out a glob of blood. He’d bit his tongue when punched, and the blood was welling up in his mouth.

“Geez,” Eve looked him over with concern in her eyes.

With the action over, Coop’s adrenaline cut off and he started to feel his injuries. The foot obviously hurt the worst and left a trail of blood. The side of his leg burned from a flesh wound a guard had fired when he was making his break for the bar. Other than that, and the ache in his jaw from the unknown assailant, he was ok.

“Mike!” Coop turned away from Eve and hobbled toward the last place he saw his big teammate. He didn’t have to search anymore. Mike was right where Coop left him.

“Get a medic!” Coop knew the term might betray them as military but he didn’t give a shit.

Mike was lying in a pool of his own blood. He looked a white as a sheet while his hands covered a gruesome wound in his abdomen. The blackening around the area said it was from an energy weapon, and without armor the big guy was defenseless.

“Tried to get out of the way,” Mike weakly explained when Coop bent down beside him with a grimace.

“You’re gonna be fine.” Coop didn’t know if that was the truth, but who told someone they weren’t going to make it. “They just took a few kilos off you.”

Mike didn’t laugh at the joke. “It was the guy in the room with the girl. Pulled a pistol and shot at me when you went over the railing. The girl ran off that way.” He pointed to an exit door at the far end before the pathway started to curve up to the third floor. “Way to leave me hanging.”

Coop had a comeback locked and loaded, but Sullivan showed up and shouldered him aside. As the Bravo Team medic, Sullivan had all the stuff needed to stabilize Mike before they could get him back to the hospital on base.

Coop stood up to find Eve standing beside him. She looked down and Mike with rage in her eyes. Apparently, she didn’t like one of their team getting BBQ’d any more than he did.

“What the hell happened, Coop?” She asked, her voice calm, but devoid of emotion.

“Someone I never thought I’d see again showed up.” He left it at that despite the questions in Eve’s eyes. He’d save it for the AAR.

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Hailey’s Tale – Part 5

Hailey only had two days left, and she knew she’d procrastinated long enough. She wasn’t naïve when it came to the things PFH did to keep the money flowing. After all, she’d gone through the AP curriculum, and studied some of their more famous operations. Men, no matter how big or small, were accountable to PFH when they handled their products. The problem was…this one was personal.

<It’s genius,> she thought for the millionth time as she strolled down the familiar PHA streets.

PFH wanted their people dedicated to the organization, but even the most dedicated person had old ties that always held them back. Even if those ties were a galaxy away. What this mission did was eliminate Hailey’s ties. With Jimmy’s brains already sanitized from an alley a kilometer from where she walked, and Coop on a different planet, hitting Mr. Cooper was the logical choice. It was wickedly clever, but the mission also hoped for more practical outcomes. The building’s militia, of which Mr. Cooper was a ranking member, had banned the PFH from doing business in their tower. Normally, Asset Protection, or some bribed or hired force, would settle the issue, but in this particular PHA’s case the cost benefit analysis stated it just wasn’t worth the extra effort.

Hailey was surprised that PFH and their competitors weren’t allowed to operate in her old home. She’d heard Mr. Cooper through the thin walls with a variety of other women when she’d been with Coop. Apparently, they wanted to be there and weren’t paid for their services. However, now that AP had a trainee from the same block, it only made sense for her to open up the new revenue stream for the organization.

Madame Desroisiers and Madame Sourd had even sweetened the pot. They’d promised Hailey a five percent bonus of the organization’s earnings over their first twelve months of operations. That could translate into thousands of dollars in Hailey’s pocket if things went well. That made her smile slightly, but didn’t completely assuage her guilt.

“Pigs on your left.” The woman strolling next to her stated.

According to AP standard operating procedure, you didn’t operate alone unless absolutely necessary. Four eyes were better than two, and four hands could carry four guns. Sometimes you needed firepower when dealing with some pissed off competing pimp. Assistant Instructor Weiss was assessing Hailey’s performance on this mission. The beautiful PFH operative was somewhere between Hailey and Madame Sourd on the hierarchy, but Hailey didn’t know anything about the other woman other than she was an active AP agent. Hailey hadn’t seen Weiss before their meeting twenty eight days ago.

Hailey and Weiss were both disguised in dirty PHA rags common among Rats. Hailey would have worn her old clothing if they’d still fit, but the enhancements made that impossible. The enhancements also made blending in among the other Rats difficult. Hailey was a healthy, athletic, competent woman now, and that just didn’t translate well into a PHA Rat. It was hard not to be confident when she knew she could take down most people in this dump.

She thought of the PHA as a dump now. A dump full of weak people not strong or smart enough to get their shit together. It made her sick to think that she’d been like this less than a year ago. That thought was her primary motivation for ending Walter Cooper. She needed to end this chapter in her life and move on to the next. Those old ties the PFH was targeting would hold her back if she let them, which is why she was going to succeed with her mission.

The hover car the police drove by slowed slightly as it passed Hailey and Weiss. Hailey was hunched over, and had grime smeared over her face. Weiss, who was naturally shorter, didn’t have to slouch, but she’d employed a slight limp which hid the otherwise predatory grace she usually moved with. They’d also rubbed crap all into her vibrantly blonde hair to the point it gave a whole new meaning to the term dirty blonde.

Evidently, their tradecraft worked because the cops continued on their way. Hailey knew they needed to keep moving or they’d become targets themselves, but she felt a surge of pride that her countermeasures had successfully disguised them.

“Focus.” Weiss noticed her distraction and pulled her back on task. The woman didn’t speak much, and the few words she did speak were instructions or warnings.

PFH had spent a lot of time and money training Hailey. They weren’t going to let her crash and burn on her first mission. It was hard for Madame Desroisiers to write off a disaster like that, but she would if she had to. Weiss was only accompanying Hailey to the front entrance. After that, she was on her own.

Weiss peeled off about a hundred meters away and went to the rendezvous point in the mouth of a nearby alley. She’d stage there until Hailey completed the mission, or was killed. Hailey knew Mr. Cooper well enough to know he’d put a bullet in her head if she thought he was there to kill him. Her job was to not give him the opportunity.

She walked up to the building’s entrance like she had a million times over her eighteen years. <Or is it nineteen now?> She had no idea if her birthday had passed. She was just too busy to notice.

She recognized a few of the guards manning the doors and scanning people. Most of the residents they knew by sight. Hailey had always been able to walk right by.

“You, stop.” The guard didn’t yell it, but Hailey glanced over and saw him pointing right at her.

She involuntarily tensed, and then cursed herself for the reaction. It only made her look guilty, so as the guard approached her, she forced herself to relax.

“Give me your print,” the guard demanded.

If the guards couldn’t identify a resident then they took a fingerprint of the individual to verify residency. Hailey knew this from the mission briefing and personal experience.

“Come on,” she complained weakly to the guard while providing her thumb.

Before putting her thumb on the scanner, the guard spit on the polyplast surface to clean it. Dirt and grime had collected around the edges for a decade or more, but the building’s few tenants who knew anything about electrical engineering would keep the small device running until it fell apart. It wasn’t like the PHA bureaucrats were going to buy them a new one.

Hailey tried not to gag as she put her finger on the still damp polyplast, but then firmly told herself to woman the fuck up. She’d lived in this place for eighteen years. A few months on a comfortable bed with smartcloth clothes and studying to be a high-priced hooker/assassin had made her soft.

While she was chiding herself, the scanner beeped green and the guard nodded for her to go ahead. Hailey wondered if PFH had grabbed her in the first place because they wanted to get to Walter. The fact that she was still registered in the building’s databanks indicated that the rent for her room was still being paid to the PHA. Even while she was in training, PFH had been planning for this day and laying the ground work. It was an expensive plan, and it was Hailey’s job to make it work.

Instead of taking the elevator, Hailey took the stairs up to the fifth floor. She’d taken the route hundred of times, but now she saw potential ambush sites, good fields of fire, and potential profit. Just because the PFH and others weren’t allowed in the building didn’t mean the world’s oldest profession wasn’t alive and well. It was just handled in house, and the stairwell was a well-known congregating area. Hailey passed more than one guy getting a blowey, but no one even stopped as she passed. The guys probably paid by the minute, and when you didn’t have a lot of cash you didn’t wait for a stranger to pass so you could get your rocks off.

She exited the stairwell and walked the twenty-five meters to Walter Cooper’s apartment. She only hesitated for a second before hitting the buzzer. While she waited, she brushed her hair out of her face so Walter could see her.

The doctors at PFH had done significant modification to Hailey. Modification that had taken months to heal and get accustomed to, but one thing they didn’t mess with was her face. They highlighted her cheekbones and made sure everything was symmetrical, but compared to the rest of her that was minimal. What that allowed was for anyone that used to know her to still identify Hailey Armstrong.

The screen next to the door activated and Walter Cooper’s face appeared. “What the hell do you…?” He abruptly stopped the tirade he’d been working up to. “Hailey…?” She saw his eyes widen a bit.

“Hey, Mr. Cooper. Long time no see.” She smiled bashfully at the screen and hoped it lowered his guard.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, his guard not fully lowered.

“I thought I owed you an explanation for where I went. I just kind of disappeared on you.” She went into the speech she’d rehearsed, but Walter cut her off.

“You don’t owe me anything.” He started to shut down the feed, and she panicked a little.

“Wait!” Thankfully, Walter didn’t disconnect. “You’re right that I don’t owe you shit, but I at least wanted to pass along info to Coop if he calls. I know it’s a one in a million shot, but if he ever comes back here on leave then I want him to know where to find me.” The sincerity in her voice surprised her, but it only helped sell her story. “Can I come in for two minutes? Then I’m out of your hair forever.”

Walter’s eyebrows narrowed, and she wasn’t sure she’d convinced him. “Show me your hands.”

Hailey acted perplexed, but opened up to show both her hands were empty. Walter disconnected, and there was a moment where nothing happened, where Hailey thought she’d failed, but then there was a hiss as the environmentally-sealed apartment opened up and Walter stood in front of her.

“Keep your hands where I can see them. You’ve got one minute and then…” Walter never got to finish. There was a slight cough as Hailey fired a snub-nosed pistol concealed on her person, and the 1mm dart hit Walter right in the gut.

The old hardass looked more angry than surprised as the weapon pulverized a chunk of his intestine. He fell back, his hand over his wound as Hailey darted inside and hit the button to seal the door.

She knew a cautious man like Walter would be looking for weapons, even on her, so Hailey had come up with a plan. It wasn’t hard to get a prosthetic arm and attach it to her shoulder. With a small silicone chip, the arm could do just about anything she wanted it to, so it was easy to ensure it would open up to show Walter she wasn’t carrying a weapon; when in fact her real arm was hidden below the layers of garments and carrying the small, close-range pistol.

<Thank god for Buffalo’s cold weather.> Her plan wouldn’t have worked in another month or so.

The pistol was notoriously inaccurate outside of twenty-five meters, but it was more than capable of doing the job when you were up close and personal. PFH wanted it done up close and personal, and they’d equipped Hailey with a small camera to record her first kill for the organization.

“God damn that stings like pissing when you’ve got the clap,” Walter coughed and laughed at the same time. Bloody spittle flew into the air.

<The dart must have ricocheted off a rib and went into his lung.> That would explain the bloody cough, but it also meant the old man would suffocate as his lungs filled with blood. Hailey was here to kill Walter, not let him die slow and painful.

She leveled the pistol at his head but didn’t pull the trigger. Her hand shook as Walter turned up to looked her right in the eyes.

“It’s harder than it looks on the holo, right.” He grinned to reveal blood-stained teeth. “But you need to finish the job girl. Put on your big girl panties and get it done.”

Despite herself, Hailey laughed. “You know you’re asking me to kill you.”

“I’m already dead.” It was then that she realized that Walter wasn’t even trying to cover up the wound in his gut. His arms were hanging limply at his side as blood poured from his abdomen.

<The dart didn’t ricochet off a rib. It hit his spine.>

Walter Cooper was paralyzed and bleeding to death.

“Just one question though. What outfit did you sign up with? Local gang…cops finally decided they wanted to off me…syndicate?” Hailey nodded at the last one. “Ahh…Putinski then.” Walter nodded when Hailey didn’t say anything. “They’re some ruthless bitches. Don’t forget to cover your own ass with them. If you aren’t careful the long dick of Asset Protection will fuck you just as hard as the johns you’ve got to service.”

“I am Asset Protection.” Hailey shot back.

“Well…shit…good for you kid. So what are waiting for? Protect your…” Walter didn’t get to finish before Hailey raised the weapon again and blew a hole through his forehead and scattered his brains all over the entryway.

The tremor in her hand was gone, and so was the old Hailey Armstrong. All that was left was an Asset Protection agent for Putinski Family Holdings.

After today, she’d receive her final grade, graduate from the program, and be assigned to any of the organization’s many establishments throughout human space. As Hailey exited the building, and the cold wind hit her, she wished for someplace warm. She didn’t know if Madame Desroisiers would grant her request, but once all was said and done she got what she wanted. She was assigned to New Savannah where she’d spend more months honing her skill in the field.

And then one night her past caught up to her.

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Hailey’s Tale – Part 4

Ten Months Later

The instructor walked out and handed Hailey a piece of metal and polyplast. Hailey immediately did a weapons check to make sure the safety was activated and the chamber was clear. It wasn’t. Hailey popped out the round, and the instructor gave an approving nod. In the last ten months of training, Hailey had grown accustomed to the mind games her instructors liked to play. They’d throw a wrench into the most routine task every once and a while. It all reinforced their mantra of adaptability.

She was not that same Hailey that had entered the academy ten months ago; physically or mentally. Like any organization that was seriously investing in its employees, Putinski Family Holdings wanted to make her better. She’d been given a series of enhancements based on her career track. She’d gone from 165 to 181 centimeter and put on fifteen kilos as the procedures reinforced muscular and skeletal structures, but she wasn’t some heavy infantry solider like in the holos. Her carrier still needed for her to be a lean, mean, sex machine, so she’d only been upgraded to what a world with 120% Earth-normal gravity would have. She was now stronger than average, but couldn’t take on someone with serious enhancements. Overall, strength was not the objective of her upgrade. The objective was speed.

Everything about her had been designed to be faster than normal. Her cognition, reflexes, fast-twitch muscles fibers, and just about everything else in her body had been heightened. She couldn’t punch through polyplast walls like some people, but she could draw a pistol with the galaxy’s best gunslingers. Or get a guy off. Rumor was that the enhancement was a similar one to what they gave fighter pilots in the military, but with a few proprietary tweaks.

For Hailey, the operation itself wasn’t hard to get through, but the recovery was. It was tough for her mind to grasp how everything around her moved a little slower than it did before. If her adrenaline started pumping, and her fighting reflex took over, stuff around her almost seemed to slow to a crawl. It was surreal, and a true mind fuck. Coping with that while still keeping up with all of her course work was a real challenge; especially for someone who was not academically inclined. Luckily, the academy had a fix for that.

Madame Desroisiers hadn’t been kidding during that first meeting. She said their clients wanted more than a pair of perky tits and a firm ass. Sure, everyone at the academy was instructed in the arts of seduction, reading body language, the whole ‘come hither’ shebang, as well as a thorough course on the Kama Sutra, but there was a lot more to this career than that. Their clients wanted intelligent women they could actually have a conversation with before taking them to the bedroom. The academy educated their students on all the big topics: politics, economics, social issues, and military matters. Some took to classroom learning and had a slightly longer tenure at the academy to get legitimate degrees in their courses of study, but most, like Hailey, weren’t those types of learners. That was what data dumps were for.

Through visual cerebral programming the academy was able to dump a chunk of knowledge into a person’s brain. It was an extremely uncomfortable procedure, that left the student with a two-day migraine, but it got the job done. On top of being uncomfortable it was also controversial. Legitimate universities screened for people who’d received data dumps because they saw it as cheating on top of being a health risk. There were neurological markers to indicate if a person had the procedure which didn’t dissipate. On top of that, just having the procedure didn’t mean the knowledge stayed around, and there was no guarantee against side effects of having knowledge unnaturally poured into your brain.

Hailey underwent monthly health scans that would continue for the duration of her time with PFH. At first, she’d thought the data dumps would stop her from doing any work, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Data dumps fell into that ‘if you don’t use it you lose it’ category. You couldn’t just dump foreign information into your brain and retain it without work. So, despite having a Master’s degree’s worth of military and economic knowledge uploaded to her mind, she still had nightly retention homework she needed to complete. For Hailey, that just meant having to buckle down and study after an exhausting day of her specialty focus. She was a proud member of the AP track, and that didn’t stand for advanced placement.

Asset Protection (AP) was the reason Madame Sourd had singled her out at the audition for cutting off the junkie’s dick. Madame Sourd was the head AP instructor at the academy, and she saw something in Hailey. Something Hailey herself didn’t see. Now it was ten months of training later, and Hailey had to show what she’d learned.

The instructor tossed her a magazine for the weapon and walked out of the large, plain white room. Hailey inserted the magazine into the weapon and checked the readout. <Twenty rounds.> That wasn’t a lot, and it immediately set off her internal alarms.

“Your mission is to eliminate all hostiles until your pick up arrives in…eight minutes.” The instructor’s voice announced over an unseen speaker. “Simulation beings in three…two…one…” The room dissolved around Hailey and was replaced by an alley you could find in any PHA on Earth.

The first thing to hit her was the smell. She doubted she would have noticed this a year ago, but she’d been living in a place with fresh air and where people routinely showered. Her nose had adapted faster than the rest of her to the luxury. With a gulp, she quickly pushed the nauseating aroma out of her mind and moved to find cover. The only thing in the alley was a dumpster with a big PROPERTY OF THE PUBLIC HOUSING AUTHORITY stamped on it. She put her back to the metal, ignored the sticky sensation, and waited. There was no countdown clock, but she’d learned to keep count in her head.

The muffled step of a person approaching was her first indication that something was wrong. If not for the wrapper the guy stepped on, he might have been on her before she knew it. She whirled around, everything seemed to sputter as her enhancements kicked in, and she brought the guy on target. He looked like any other Rat: dirty, dressed in rags, hungry, and pissed. Hailey put him out of his misery with a round through the heart. He crumbled to the ground and disintegrated as the simulation registered him as a kill.

<Nineteen,> she counted the expended round. <I need a better position.> The dumpster was in the center of the alley, which left her vulnerable to both sides, but at the same time, leaving the cover it provided would make her vulnerable.

A bottle sat next to her, so she picked it up and tossed it. The sudden motion drew out another PHA Rat. The crack of his chemically-propelled round resounded through the alley as he fired on the bottle. The bottle hadn’t even smashed against the far wall before Hailey had gone down to a knee and pivoted around the edge of the dumpster. The Rat noticed his mistake too late and tried to reacquire Hailey, but he moved like he was stuck in quicksand. It gave her plenty of time to put another round through his heart.

<Eighteen.>

She wheeled away from the dissolving man and sprinted toward the back of the alley where there would be better cover. A third man appeared around the corner less than ten meters from her. She immediately went into a slide, and felt the man’s bullet pass over her. The near miss made the hair on her neck stand up, but she didn’t let it get in the way of putting another round in the man. This one missed his heart due to her slide, but it blasted apart his throat, which the simulation registered as another kill.

<Seventeen.>

She got to the bend in the alley and looked for move cover. To her left was a dead end, and to the right was another opening to the street. Another smaller dumpster sat next to a building on the dead-end side, which she quickly dove behind. A round pinged off the metal just as she took cover. She recovered quickly, rose, and shot the shooter dead.

<Sixteen.>

She looked around for anything to give her a view of the alley without compromising her cover. There were no windows or reflective material she could see, so she grabbed another clear empty bottle, and smashed it on the ground. It didn’t give shit for details, but she could see if something started walking down the alley toward her.

In less than thirty seconds, a dozen figures appeared and rushed her. She knew the instructors wanted to see how she performed under pressure, and there was no better way to test that than when the bullets were flying. She dipped, dived, ducked and dodged in and out from her cover to get shots on the advancing Rats. She took out the ones running first, and then picked off the more cautious ones.

<At least there wasn’t any cover or concealment down that way.> Hailey thanked whoever built the simulation for that. She’d expended twelve bullets in the rush. It felt like an hour had passed, she’d lost count in her head, but it had to be over soon.  <Four rounds left.> She took beep breath to bring her heart rate back down.

The crunch of a man stepping on something brought her out from behind her cover to put another round through a man’s chest. No sooner had she done that, than a spike of pain and burning sensation spread through her left shoulder. She didn’t even notice the man taking cover behind the wall of the building blocking the second alley. The new Rat fired again, but Hailey had already spun away. The round impacted the building behind her and sent concrete chips flying painfully into her head, but she got a bead on the man and fired. He went down and dissolved.

Logically, she knew this was only a simulation, but that didn’t mean the pain in her shoulder was any less real. She tried to raise her other arm, and it didn’t respond while blood leaked down and dripped from her fingertips. She figured she had ten minutes before she started getting light-headed from blood loss and twenty before she passed out.

She looked around for anything to plug the wound, but nothing presented itself. She considered opening the dumpster, but a round pinging off the metal dissuaded her. She rose up and fired her second to last round. The Rat went down, and behind him, she saw a car pull up against the curb. That had to be her ride. She had one round left, so she assumed one more Rat was going to jump her, but she had to get to that car. She pushed off the ground at a run and hugged the wall.

Just as she thought, when she was halfway down the alley to her ride, a woman stepped out around the corner with a gun in her hand…and then a second person followed.

<Fuck!> Hailey only had one round left. She juked hard away from the wall when the first woman took her under fire. The speed of Hailey’s movement saved her life, but didn’t solve her problem. Fortunately, thinking fast was what she’d been trained to do.

A plan coalesced quickly, and she bet it only had a fifty percent chance of working, but that was better than being dead, so she went for it. The two women were reacquiring her, but Hailey got her shot off first. She aimed higher and blew the first woman’s head open in a shower of gore. Since the round itself had less to go through, it continued through her head and into the side of the building. Just like what had happened to Hailey, concrete chips flew off the building as the round made contact. The second woman, who was following closely behind the first woman for cover, got a face full of blood, brain, and concrete shrapnel. Those made her flinch as she pulled the trigger. Her round went high and impacted harmlessly against the wall above Hailey.

Hailey didn’t have time to marvel at how her plan had worked, because that was only step one. She still needed to disarm and eliminate the woman, and she was now out of ammunition. Thankfully, AP training had turned her body into a weapon. Hailey sprinted forward as the woman tried to rub the blood and grim from her face, lowered her good shoulder, and drove it into the woman’s chest. She was twenty percent tougher than the average human, so the other woman must have felt like she was steamrolled by an NFL linebacker. She bounced off the wall and collapsed in a heap, but Hailey didn’t let up. Aggression was the name of the game, and Hailey proved that by repeatedly bringing her foot down on the women’s neck and skull. On the third blow something crunched and the woman dissolved.

The car gave a beep of its horn, like the driver was an impatient cabby. Hailey gave it the finger, but walked over to it. She stuck the gun in her pocket before she hit the sidewalk, and used her free hand to cover up the wound and control the bleeding. She collapsed into the interior, and the simulation dissolved.

She was lying on the polished, white floor of the testing room. The sensors in her smartcloth deactivated and the pain vanished. She was still exhausted and wired at the same time from the simulation, but got up, controlled her breathing, and patiently waited for her grade.

“Pass…ninety-five percent,” the instructor stated.

Hailey didn’t let her disappointment show. <I killed twenty-one hostiles with twenty bullets. You’ve got to give me a break on getting shot.> But the grade was final, and ultimately it didn’t matter. Hailey had passed.

One of the walls dissolved to show Madame Sourd standing there expectantly with her arms crossed behind her back. Hailey knew that look, and she hurried to exit the room and report to the AP lead instructor. Once she reached the larger woman, Hailey fell into a respectful stance and waited for the woman to begin.

“I’ve seen worse,” the larger woman stated after a moment of silence. Then a grin pulled at her lips. “One more test and you will graduate the AP program.” She handed Hailey an old-fashioned manila envelope.

Hailey didn’t need an explanation. This was the logical next step. PFH needed to make sure she could make the leap from shooting holograms to shooting real flesh and blood. Whoever this was, they’d pissed off the wrong people, and Hailey was the organization’s response.

“You have thirty days to complete your mission. Your time starts now.” Madame Sourd stated before turning and walking away. The AP instructor was a woman of few words. She preferred her actions to do her talking for her.

Hailey hurried after her while pulling the information out of the envelope. She nearly tripped over her own feet when she saw who her target was. Staring back at her from the top sheet of paper was the smiling face of Walter Cooper.

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