Murder in the Holy City - Part 4

***Previously***

“You are beginning to make me a little nervous here Cherie. This sounds like you are planning to start a war.”

“I have never in my life started a fight Yves, not in that way.” Charlotte’s expression was stony, her tone flat and emotionless. “Given a choice, I will run away from a fight. I do not think I have a choice here. The first blow has been struck and it was by our enemy. They will strike again but it will be for the last time. This will not be allowed in my city.”

“Ah, then you are planning to finish a war. I will be by your side every step of the way Cherie. I have your… backside?”

“Six Yves, the phrase is ‘I’ve got your six’. It’s a reference to a 12 hour clock where 1800 would be 6:00 PM and therefore at the bottom of the clock, meaning the back.”

“You Americans are so strange… I still can’t get used to thinking in your bizarre Imperial measurements… And what sort of sense does a 12 hour clock make?”

“None at all but you do indeed have my backside as well… if you can manage it that is.” Her tone was teasing.

“Not even with a truckload of little blue pills Cherie. The mind is willing but the body is weak, non? Yves kissed her lightly.

They lay there together as the first hints of light turned into the blaze of a new day, Charlotte having attended to the needed messages. Eventually they fell asleep cuddled together, caressed by sunlight that penetrated their bones with warmth and comfort.

*** And Now… ***

“Well doesn’t this look cozy! I see you’ve decided to let the young pup sleep indoors then?” Charlotte opened her eyes to see a familiar figure grinning at her.

“You leave him alone Gordy, he’s a marvelous cushion! Except for that one bit that seems to be getting a little less fluffy...” Charlotte returned the grin and gave a deliberate wriggle, eliciting a groan from beneath her.

“Get off me woman! I need a bathroom now!” Yves didn’t wait, levering himself up while still supporting Charlotte who squeaked a bit before they both went for separate bathrooms at the best speed they could muster.

When they both returned having taken care of business Gordy was sitting at the table with 3 tumblers of single malt poured. “Bit o’ the hair kids?”

“Different dog but whatever…” Charlotte answered as she sat and tossed back half the glass. Yves followed suit but without the comment.

Gordon took a sip of his own and smiled in appreciation. “You did inherit your father’s tastes in whiskey girl.”

“Well I do have a slightly larger repertoire… but I’ll grant there’s very little can beat a good Ardbeg Kidalton. There’s a case of it in the other room with your name on it.” Charlotte grinned at him.

The three of them made their way to the concrete pad and got the fire going, giving it time to establish a good bed of coals while adding more wood and carrying a cooler full of beer out, along with seats. Soon enough the sheet roofing and burlap sacks were in place and the first bushel of oysters was steaming.

“So why the 2 extra seats?” Gordy was blunt about his curiosity.

Charlotte frowned a bit. “Cause we have 2 more guests on the way. Can’t be helped, they already read themselves in and I need both of them anyway. And here they come…”

The noise of a turbofan could be heard getting rapidly closer until it suddenly cut and the noise of planes retracting was a barely audible hum as the ‘foil bumped gently against the dock less than a half inch from Gordy’s Jon boat. Grapples ticked into place and the canopy slid back, disgorging Mel and Tina along with another cooler of beer and a net bag of crabs.

Noisy greetings were had all around and a large pressure cooker was filled, dosed liberally with crab boil and filled with crabs. Once the water began to steam the top was attached, pressure set and a timer put in motion. They all adjourned back outside and made inroads into the beer while the food finished itself, carefully avoiding the topic which had brought them here.

Despite the necessity which drew them all found the companionship convivial, the easy familiarity of kindred souls making the evening more enjoyable than any of them had expected. The last oyster had been shucked, the last bit of succulent flesh sucked from a crab claw and the debris flung into the night before bottles and garbage were gathered and stowed in the appropriate receptacles. The coals were soaked with a few buckets of water which also served to sluice off the concrete pad to its normal dingy looking dilapidation.

They all retired inside and gathered in the main room, each with their choice of drink and having made themselves comfortable. The moderately sized screen which could be seen from the windows began the opening sequences of an action movie while thick shutters slid down to seal the structure completely. The displays integrated into the windows showed anyone who might have been watching a spectrally complete picture of 5 people enjoying a movie with minimal conversation.

Once the house was fully secured a message displayed on the screen and it shut off. A spheroid descended from the center of the ceiling a few feet while the lights dimmed and suddenly a hologram of Charleston and the surrounding area sprang into view, occupying the cleared center of the room entirely. The view zoomed in on Broad Street and shapes the size of a tractor tire but fatter and with no holes in the middle moved slowly and quietly above the Post office about 60 feet high. A patrol car made its way down the street and onto East Bay headed for the Battery.

Once the car was 2 blocks away the drones drifted over the sidewalk and suddenly a subliminally heard buzz stopped as a ghastly red curtain of gore fell from each one, splashing widely while the drones which had held the bulk suddenly shot upward in total silence.

The silence was echoed in the room for a few moments as all present digested the simulation Charlotte had just shown them. Gordy was the first to speak.

“About that whiskey” He took a sip of the substance in question. “Bribery will get you everywhere, kiddo.” He sobered a little and leaned forward. “In this case it isn’t necessary. I want these bastards so bad I can taste it but legally I can’ touch em… diplomatic immunity.” His expression soured and he looked at the other four.

“You four, however, are private citizens.” He slid a datachip across the table to Charlotte. “Here’s the traffic from that night, all of it. I singled out microburst control transmissions for some kind of craft so I figure that has to be what you’re looking for. It fits a swarm like you figured.”

“Hybrid gasbag/fan drones, each just enough to carry the load required and dump it all at the same time. If they built them the way I figured then altogether they put out about 29 db after noise cancellation with a spike about 40% higher than that when the drop occurred, after which the fans simply cut out and the gasbags rose quite rapidly until they were out of audible range before reasserting directional control and returning to wherever base is. That time of night on Broad Street its absolutely deserted and it wouldn’t even trigger the surveillance cameras to record… Their thresholds are set high enough to not be triggered by birds or rain…”

“You haven’t told anyone about this? Aside from the gnome, the pixie and Jarhead boy over there I mean?”

Yves spluttered on a half swallowed sip of whiskey. “Jarhead Boy?!? I will put any of my Commando Trepel against your SEALS!”

This was an old argument for both of them, one they had enjoyed while serving together in unnamed places and they both warmed to it for a moment, settling down when Charlotte laid a hand on each of their arms. “Lets get to business boys and you can get back to your dick measuring contest later.”

“Oh there is no contest on that level...” Yves began but was silenced by Charlotte’s look.

“Gordy were you able to get any sort of directional indication?”

He sighed. “No… we wouldn’t have gotten this if you hadn’t managed to push the latest upgrades through. I’d still love to know just who the hell you’re friends with…”

She grinned at him. “I really don’t think you would. Point is, these guys are gonna do something else again soon and now we know what their control signals look like we should be able to triangulate with my comms, yeah?”

“I may have to be a little messy getting you the data because the time frames here seem pretty compressed.” He looked over at Charlotte “I’m going to leave footprints, no way to avoid it. Can you cover?”

Charlotte had to think about just how far down the rabbit hole she had to take her companions before replying.

“Gordy… if this is what and who we both think it is… do you really care if I can cover?”

“If we can finish this? Not even a little.” Gordy answered without hesitation. “I just wish I could go in with you…”

“I can piggyback him in” Tina offered. “Full-spectral visuals, audio, the full feed I get from your gear. He’ll have a greater range of vision and can focus on things you can’t. You’ll have full comms too. No sense bringing The GordFather along for the ride and not giving him a voice.”

Gordy almost managed to hide his reaction as his old handle was revealed. Realizing he’d failed he chose to take a sip of whiskey while looking at Tina. “You’d be Manny’s kid then?”

Tina returned a grim smile. “Christina Kassis at your service. You were there for my poppa’s funeral. I was only 12 but I remember I heard you say ‘This is no life for a man with a family’. I didn’t know what you meant or why you said that for a long time…” She paused for a sip of her own and the others followed suit.

“I found out what happened to your daughter after… everything that made it into any sort of record I could access. Then I realized what you meant and I was sick… for… I don’t know how long. Those pictures still make me want to puke and kill at the same time. I’m sorry my poppa failed sir… there isn’t a thing in this world I want more than to help make his death… their deaths… count.” If the atmosphere in the room had been heavily freighted with emotion before now it was so thick it made breathing seem almost impossible.

“My daughter, your father and 2 other men paid with their lives and in the doing saved a lot of children who were going to be sold as property, as slaves. Their deaths already counted for more than most from that alone. Manny… your Poppa… didn’t fail. He took his team into a trap knowingly, purely to buy time for the local yokels to show up. There was no way he could have saved my daughter, she’d been dead for hours before they made it to site…”

Gordy sounded haunted, clearly remembering that night. “Manny and his team didn’t go in there to save his CO’s kid. They went in there to save the kids of total strangers, knowing there was a piss poor chance of surviving. My daughter gave her life to get out the radio transmission that gave us their location.” The haunted tone in his voice had hardened to grief and anger mixed with pride.

“No failures child. Heroes every one…” was all he managed to rasp out before the tears took over.

Tina disengaged from Mel and went over to Gordy, just hugging him and crying along with him. The others waited in silence, not wishing to intrude on this moment so long in coming for both of them.

Eventually they pulled themselves together and Gordy turned his attention to Mel “So whats the story with short stuff over there?”

Mel pretended to splutter indignantly. “You old fraud! Short indeed... I’ll have you know I’ m a full four inches taller than my mother!”

Gordy laughed at her. “Oh I know full well, remember who marked the doorsill when you hit 4’ 8 ¼”?” he chuckled again. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget you standing there doing your absolute best to carry a torque wrench taller than you were…”

“They haven’t managed to drag her out of a greasepit since…” Charlotte chimed in with a giggle.

“Grease pit?!?!? I am straight up offended now…” Mel belied her words with a laugh.

“I’m betting her shop looks like a clean room...”

“Gordy If you ever saw a cleanroom with unidentifiable bits of machinery and fairings and whatnot scattered around it seemingly at random, then yes. The girl just has no appreciation of good honest mud!”

“You should see her idea of a mudroom! It has, like, actual mud in it!”

“That’s a mudbath! Besides, you like it just as much as I do!” Tina plopped herself down beside Mel again and whispered in her ear.

“In Mud?!?!?” Mel got a horrified expression on her face before collapsing in laughter.

“I am fairly sure I don’t want to know…” Yves remarked to the air.

“Right, back to business. Thanks for the info Gordy, I’m going to see what I can tease out of it.” He nodded and Charlotte continued.

“Mel, can you have DarkWing operational by tomorrow night?”

“Darky is good to go, I’ll have Hekyll and Jekyll for overwatch. You’re gonna wants the Bats aren’t you?”

“You know me too well…” She turned to Yves. “I know you’ve flown tactical gliders before. Just think of it like that… but with engines and weapons. We don’t have the toys the big boys get to play with but we make do…”

“Now that’s something you want Charlie teaching you how to pilot. I’ll have em out here by midmorning and it should give you enough time to get a solid feel for it. I built em with the widest flight envelope I could manage but she loaded so much stuff on em they can be a little tricky…” Mel thought for a moment. “I’m sure you’ve got your own stuff… but we’ve got a few other toys you might find useful too. I want you learning with full kit on cause that’s the way you’ll be flying.”

“Full kit? What does that mean? I will take my own weapons and harness, thank you very much!” Yves looked indignant and Gordy simply smiled to himself, having already been the beneficiary of some of the girls’ technological largesse.

“Of course you will Yves, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But if you are going in with me, you will also wear the kit I give you. Trust me, you’ll like it.” Charlotte kissed him into confused submission.

“Now, there isn’t much more in the way of planning to do just yet. There’s no nonsense with rushing to save potential victims… I’m sure the next poor bastards are already in the mixer. Anybody else got anything to add?”

Receiving no answer Charlotte nodded to herself. “Right then. Yves, call Marge tomorrow morning and let her know you won’t be in the next few days. We’ve got to get you checked out on some new equipment in a big hurry and its going to require full focus. I’ll be training you on the Bats till I feel you’re up to speed, Mel will give you some more advanced lessons with the ‘foils.”

“Sounds like fun so far!” Yves sounded enthused.

“You’re also going to have to become proficient with your new gear. Its mostly pretty intuitive stuff and easy to pick up on but I don’t want it slowing you down. Being able to dial senses up and down can throw you off if you’re not used to it.”

Yves looked slightly less enthused but curious “Dial senses up and down?”

“Vision in normal and several different combinations of sprectra. Hearing tunable in several different ways including stepping up or down as required for sounds outside human range. That’s the basics but you’ll get a feel for it pretty quickly. That’ll be first order of business before we go flying tomorrow.”

“Works for me!” Yves enthusiasm had returned.

Things wound down quickly after that, each of them having another drink before making their ways to various bedrooms. Yves was in an amorous mood and Charlotte was feeling a bit randy herself so it was a good hour and a half before Yves was drooling into his pillow and Charlotte rolled gently out of bed. She retrieved the datachip, slotted it into a receptacle in her study and set up several analysis routines, leaving them running as she returned to snuggle up to Yves’ bulk and dropped off to sleep quickly.

Charlotte was up within 5 hours and beginning her review of the analysis. Several patterns almost jumped out at her and she quickly devised a filter, leaving it running again and making her way into the kitchen for coffee. By the time the coffee machine had finished doing incomprehensible and somewhat noisy things she poured herself a large cup of coffee in a wide bottomed insulated mug, turning around to find Tina blearily searching through cabinets.

She produced another mug, filling it and adding the requested cream and sugar, shuddering a bit as she added the cream. “Can’t imagine how you can drink the stuff this way…”

“Me? You put so much sugar in yours its more like syrup! Anyway, what’d you come up with so far? I saw another filter running but it wouldn’t give me any parameters.”

“I think I’ve isolated more than just the drone control signals. If I’m right, I’ve got a pretty full read on their comms to date… metadata anyway. Using burners doesn’t help much if you maintain the same general movement patterns. Thing is, I’ve got several sets of patterns and I haven’t managed to quite get anything that gives me a location more specific than within 50 miles of here and somewhere near the coast.” Charlotte didn’t mention the other set of connections she’d pulled up and what she thought it might portend. One nest of vipers at a time…

“I think we’re going to need to have some heavy extraction options. I’d rather go in dark but if it comes down to it I want to hit fast and hard and if possible vanish… but if we have pursuit I want some serious options. Do you think Mel can have Helga running by tonight?”

“Mel already has Helga running, its just the upgrades that were a bit fiddly. I got it sorted yesterday… well mostly anyway. No worries, she won’t fail you in a pinch! Now that you’re done speaking unkindly about my babies, where the hell is my cup?”

Tina had seen Mel coming and already had her coffee ready, handing it over along with a kiss. “Charlie knows better than to speak ill of the Undead…“ The two ribbed each other back and forth as Charlotte set about making them a hearty breakfast. By the time she was ready to plate the two men had made their way in and acquired cups as well and they were all sitting around the kitchen table. Charlotte started by bringing over several condiments including catsup and steak sauces, hot sauce, a few other less identifiable things. She then stacked 4 of the plates along one arm, picked up the last and proceeded to circle the table, finishing with her own plate and sitting.

Tina and Mel were both aghast at what sat before them. A large steak seared to perfection was topped by 2 eggs, very sunny and sautéed mushrooms. A large pile of hashbrowns which had ham, onions, cheese and several other things in it kept it company on another plate, both filled to capacity.

“There’s no way I could eat this much in a whole day!” Tina spluttered. Mel nodded her agreement, unable to speak due to the piece of steak she was chewing just then.

The other 3 dug in with gusto and polished off the large meal in very short order while Tina and Mel managed to make some inroads before leaning back and declaring they were stuffed beyond belief. The other 3 quickly divided the remains of their meals and devoured those as well.

“How the hell do you eat like that and still look like that?” Tina’s question had a tinge of jealousy to it as she was always watching her weight.

Charlotte waved airily at the detritus of the huge meal. “Oh this? We’ll burn this off before lunch.”

“Wait, there’s no seconds?” Gordy nudged Yves who promptly assumed a hangdog expression and stared longingly at his empty plate then back up at Charlotte.

“I think now she has caught me, I shall be starved to death. Is this how it starts?”

“Hush you. I need you able to move and besides, a light breakfast is good for you!” Charlotte grinned at him as she rose and circled the table, somehow managing to make all the dishes vanish in one pass and everything else on the second. Within 30 seconds she had wiped the table clean with a sanitizer soaked cloth and dried it, leaving the dining area spotless as she gave the floor the same treatment.

She spent another 5 minutes in the kitchen while the others simply watched, drying and hanging the last pan and giving a last wipe to the grill top before surveying the kitchen, straightening a filter in the hood and polishing away a speck invisible to them. The kitchen looked as though a professional cleaning crew had just finished with it and she gave her characteristic little self-nod of approval before turning to see the other four watching intently.

“What?”

Yves was the first to speak. “I have seen trained teams of 3 do that in the same time and they were hurried. You looked like you were dancing…”

“Not looked like, she was dancing! And damn sexy too. Hubba Hubba!” Mel fanned herself dramatically with a hand.

“That’s what it is! She isn’t ever NOT dancing!” Tina was excited with the realization. The others turned to look at her but Charlotte understood exactly what she meant. “She had to relearn how to move, from the beginning! Most of us do that in childhood and pick up various unconscious ways of holding ourselves, of moving, of walking. You can see how that has been retrained to an extent in a lot of hard-core military types, dancers and martial artists.”

“Charlotte learned to move as an adult woman, not as a toddler. It was like she had a clean slate and good motor control to begin with so when she learned, to dance and how to fight and run and swim and all of it… All of it, every single move, is a dance. When she fights, she dances. When she fucks she dances. When she cleans a kitchen, she dances. Its not even conscious and likely never was… its just a product of who she is. Every single movement directed, no spare motion at all.”

Charlotte decided to interrupt. “Enough about me and dancing. Honestly its not something I like to talk about.”

“You might not want to talk about it Cherie but you and I are going to be dancing together very soon…”

“We’ll discuss this on the run this morning. First we get you kitted up and checked out on the augments.” She held up a hand to forestall the inevitable protest. “I know you don’t have your gear here but wait till you see what we’ve got for you. I think you’ll like it.”

“Gordy, you’re going to get a chance to play with the gear on your end too. As of now, you’re shipwrecked. Your boat is going to be found somewhere down around St Helena in a couple of days. Whether you are ever ‘rescued’… well, that’s gonna be pretty much your choice. Don’t even bother giving me an answer until this whole thing is over, ok?”

The large man was mostly impassive save for a quiet “Hooah”

“Goddammit Gordy, don’t go all soldier boy on me.” Charlotte glared at him.

“Cherie, you started it” Yves continued before she could protest “and rightfully so. This is your operation, we are your team under your command. He simply acknowledged that fact and your orders in the fashion to which he is accustomed.”

Charlotte looked chagrined “Sorry Gordy, I hadn’t thought of it that way… or quite realized the tone I’d adopted. Thank you Yves”

“Don’t worry about it kid. You’re doing exactly what you need to be doing and Yves is right. Your op, your team, your orders.”

Charlotte could still tell that he approved of her apology and her thanking Yves. “Tina, can you get started on the gear with Gordy while I get Yves kitted up and checked out? I should have us ready for a run in an hour so you’ve got a little bit. Mel, we’ll need the Bats in about 3 hours, configuration Delta-3 please. I figure an hour for basic flight checkout, lunch and then we get to go have some serious fun!”

“Charlie you can’t go up for practice runs with no chutes! Those things are… dammit! Nevermind…” Mel realized before she’d even begun to properly argue her point that it would be useless. “Just stay over water when you start with the truly insane shit please.”

Charlotte grinned at her “Aww, you take all the fun out of it!” She turned to Tina and put on a hangdog expression. “Your girlfriend is being mean to me!”

“Hey you don’t have to live with her, she puts the damper on my fun all the time!” Tina smirked at Mel.

“Only because you two idiots insist on trying to kill yourselves 8 days a week!”

“Right… this from the girl who made freaking nitroglycerine in 4th grade!”

“Nitrocellulose! Geez… blow up one little boat and everybody thinks you’re an explosives nut!” Mel was sporting a maniacal grin.

“And this would be why she’s so good at weapons design!” Charlotte interrupted the banter. “Mel, I want him trained without a safety factor. He’s just like me, give him a fudge factor and he’s likely to want to use it. The Bats can take a bath just fine and it’ll do him good to worry about it.”

“Wait, so who’s the mean one again?” Yves was giving his best confused puppy look.

“Oh its definitely me…” Charlotte purred at him.

“Then all is right with the world! Abuse me! Make me do strange and insane things! Can I haz flamethrower?” He looked hopeful.

The others laughed at him and Charlotte gave him a quick kiss. “Maybe later… for now, you get to be randomly manipulated by a maniacal fitter!” She pulled him up and out of the dining area as he feigned terrified resistance to more laughter from the others.

Once in the armory she ordered him to strip and don a thick bodysuit, explaining it to him as she helped him learn how to put it on. Once he was fully fitted, had jumped around a bit and discovered how insanely comfortable the garment was she donned her own suit and opened a cabinet filled with various types of weapons mounting systems, combat webbing, attachable hardpoints and other less identifiable gear.

“For now. Lets get you kitted up as close to your normal rig as possible then we’ll start adding stuff, ok?”

Within a few minutes he had assembled an odd mixture of combat webbing, strap on holsters and sheaths and was checking things for comfort, noise, or any snags. Satisfied, he turned his attention back to Charlotte who had decked herself out so completely that most of her bodysuit was covered with fairings or armor with hardpoints on it. He stared for a moment before she began attaching similar items to him, carefully explaining what every item did, how to use it and how to attach or detach it.

He had expected this weird form of high tech land warrior gear to weigh much more than it did and was pleasantly surprised when she finished and he jumped around a bit to test fit and comfort again. “This can’t be more than 15 kilos! This must be very light armor…”

“Well it won’t stop a .50 rifle at anything under 500 meters but aside from that I think you’ll be surprised. This is a combination of a highly reactive superfluid and piezogenerative lattice both imbedded into a hyperballistic matrix and sandwiching multiple pure layers of superfluid and crystal. It is both armor and power source for all of your gear. Sections built in can provide some degree of first aid such as applying an effective tourniquet to an injured extremity. This can occur both automatically and at your discretion.”

“Automatic temperature regulation is a side effect of the armor/power matrix and will keep you comfortable in anything from Antarctic weather to near boiling. Even fairly large breaches can self-repair in seconds.”

Yves was astonished. “Cherie, I knew you had some very nice toys but this… I’ve never heard of anything like it!”

“Oh its just something Mel and I cooked up. We were actually trying to design a spacesuit and discovered that our design was very good for that purpose but with some modifications could also be the core of a total warrior system. I’ve got some other ideas in mind for future versions but for now this is totally proprietary and in the blackest of boxes.”

She picked up a helmet and locked it into his suit in a way he couldn’t quite understand. Cool air flowed in as he inhaled and he took a moment to get the feel of the device on his head. “I barely feel like I have a helmet on at all! My field of vision seems normal, hearing seems normal… wait, can you hear me?”

Charlotte giggled at him. “I’ve got everything on normal passive right now so yes I can hear you. Now watch me fasten my helmet so you know how to do it.” She demonstrated twice before he nodded and she instructed him to remove and reattach his own helmet, then made him do it a few more times until he could get it on and off very quickly.

Once they were both fully situated with helmets on she proceeded to run him through the various augments that were available to him and their control systems. Almost exactly 1 hour later she led him out through one of the waterlocks and as soon as they were free she activated a system which caused fins to unfold from the soles of her suit and flip outward. He copied and without breaking the surface she led him through the murky water which thanks to the augments the suit provided was actually very easy to navigate.

They had exited as the tide was finished running out so she led him out onto a wide expanse of deep and clinging mud and demonstrated just how terrible the stuff was by sinking almost hip deep into it. She extracted herself with some difficulty and after a quick rinse showed him how to reconfigure the suit for the deep pluff mud. What had been fins when folded back in now spread and bent downward at the edges almost like snowshoes. The increase in surface area and the downward bend made the mud not exactly easy to walk on but doable.

When Charlotte started to run Yves discovered that it was much easier the faster you were going so they enjoyed a little romp amongst the mudflats, madly sprinting across a landscape that denied passage in any other gear unless sliding along on your belly. She had him madly cycling through the augments to see the various details he could pick out, even how he could see dimly down into the mud a few inches. Once he was comfortable on the mudflat she led him onto more solid ground and the mudshoe configuration reverted to one more suited for the terrain.

Yves found himself straining to keep up as she dashed through the dense undergrowth at a speed he knew from experience wasn’t her best but he was also taking time to experiment with the newfound senses he had gained, discovering which combinations worked best or were an active hindrance in that type of environment. He was almost surprised when she burst back out onto open mudflats, footwear reconfiguring on the fly as she dashed for the water but he went with it and followed, putting on a burst of speed and drawing even as she ran toward the water.

She didn’t let up, pulling an odd sliding maneuver that allowed her to skate over the surface of the water for a short distance before she allowed herself to fall forward into knee deep water and vanish completely. Yves switched filters on the fly and just managed to catch her spidering her way along the bottom several yards away from where he’d first looked. Without that particular combination he would have been completely unable to detect her presence.

Abandoning any idea of stealth, he simply splashed into the water until he could swim and struck out on the surface in a powerful stroke headed well away from where Charlotte was still ghosting along the bottom. He went a few yards, then stopped and sunk to the bottom where he began a similar bottom crawl, still away from her position. He circled around behind a small hummock of grasses and was proceeding toward what he’d projected as her position when he felt a tap on his wrist from beneath and jerked back in surprise as a shape rose from the mud and wrapped itself around him.

It took a moment to realize the animal wrapping itself around him was Charlotte and he’d been taken so completely by surprise. By the time he managed to react she’d unwrapped herself and was arrowing along the bottom faster than he could follow. They played cat and mouse all the way back to the waterlock before she allowed him to catch her, then pulled him down inside and hit the purge button to close the outer door and drain the water. She waited until the murky water had drained before she started an occupied cleaning cycle and strong blasts of water from all sides flushed all the mud out and off of their suits. When the cleaning cycle finished and the inner door swung open she pulled him out of the lock and hurriedly doffed her helmet while he did the same and they met in a passionate kiss.

“That was so much fun!” Yves was delighted, unable to stop smiling even as he struggled to get his suit off. Charlotte looked at him oddly for a moment then giggled, realizing she’d forgotten something very important.

“Just let it go.” At his incredulous look she blushed a little. “Feature of the suit. It can’t take care of fecal matter but urine is no problem. It was originally designed to be a short duration EVA suit and we’d have to have been supremely stupid to leave that bit out. Turns out to be useful anyway as it can be used to increase power output in severe drain situations.”

Yves stood there for a moment with a frustrated look on his face before it turned to one of relief as the obvious took place. “There is no feeling of moisture or anything… very bizarre but cool too! I do not think I could get used to doing this in front of people though. Do we get to go flying now?”

His abrupt return to a high pitch of excitement made Charlotte laugh and kiss him again before she dragged him into the ‘parking lot’ where Mel was waiting, already strapped into a larger and beefier looking version of the cargo ‘foil that was moored with their runabouts. They both strapped in and the canopy lowered as Mel maneuvered over to the boatlift and triggered the mechanism. Once they were up and out of the entry channel she brought up the turbines. Much more massive and powerful than the ones that powered the smaller boats they provided enough thrust to have them up on the planes very quickly and the passage through the shallow channels belied the initial impression that this large craft might be less maneuverable.

Once they got out into open water Mel began to steadily ramp the throttles upward and the craft leapt forward, automatic damping systems kicking in and making the ride extremely smooth and quiet. Charlotte watched as they passed 130 knots, noting with approval the continued smoothness of the ride.

“I’m glad you got that nasty little harmonic ironed out… I knew it wasn’t a safety issue but the damn subsonics just set my nerves on edge.”

“You and me both! I’ve got a few more little tweaks I got in once I got the idea this was coming. I think you’ll approve.” Mel had been steadily ramping the throttles up as they spoke and by now they were passing 170 knots and still accelerating. The ride got even smoother as the planes retracted into the hull, leaving the craft flying on surface effect and still accelerating. They stayed within 2 to 3 meters of the water’s surface for almost 20 minutes before she eased back on the throttles and the planes crawled back down into the water.

A combination of reversed thrust and flared control surfaces brought them smoothly down and to a rest before the canopy crawled open. Charlotte unstrapped and lead Yves through a hatch and into the cargo space which had also opened to the sky. With Yves’ assistance she hauled an extremely heavy and vaguely delta shaped package out of stowage and into the open space, then another to join it. She put her helmet back on and motioned Yves to follow suit, then touched a control which caused the package to unfold from either side, revealing… very little.

He followed suit at her request and watched with interest as she backed into the shape and it attached itself to hardpoints mounted on her suit. Again he followed suit and as he felt the attachments lock home a new set of displays became available in his helmet. Charlotte ran him through the flight controls quickly, then straightened up with visible strain, watched until he did the same with a surprised grunt of effort, then gave Mel the signal.

The front canopy had already closed and the wind over the craft was nearly unobstructed as the engines spooled up gently. They moved forward slowly, reaching a speed of about 20 knots before Charlotte triggered another control and suddenly the ungainly contraption on her back sprung open into something that looked about as much like a hang glider as an F47 bore to a Wright flyer. She triggered another control and suddenly the wings formed into a high-lift configuration causing the speed of their passage to lift her into flight.

She triggered her own engines and kept pace, hovering just over the moving boat while Yves’ craft unfurled and he gingerly warped the wings, providing just enough lift for a short hop, then repeating before snapping into she same high lift configuration she had used and smoothly triggering his own engines as he rose. Charlotte watched with approval as he experimented for a moment, then dropped down and back a little before sliding up into formation beside him.

“This is almost like having wings!” Yves’ excitement was clear in his voice. “I have flown tactical gliders, small aircraft… all sorts of things but this is more instinctive.”

“You’re a natural from what I can see. Now… I said I was going to give you a basic checkout but what we’re really going to do is play a bit so you can truly get your wings under you. This is the heaviest configuration these craft can run and as you notice we had to get up to almost 20 knots to get enough lift to take off. Once you’re grounded on anything but water, you’re staying on the ground unless you ditch the heavy weapons. In water you can actually get airborne again, with a little difficulty in shallow water and a lot more fun in deeper.”

Charlotte had been leading him subtly so that they rose while cruising and suddenly she flattened and tucked her wings while diving and increasing power to maximum. Her speed shot up as she dove and then flattened out a bare meter above the wavetops, skimming along at just over 100 knots. Yves followed suit and the chase was on as they climbed and swooped and played tag through the sky, exuberant with the sheer joy of the experience.

Too soon for either of their tastes she was guiding Yves back down to a safe landing on Helga’s open afterdeck and following him, then downchecking and stowing the Bats. Within a few minutes they were in the boatlift and shortly thereafter were gathered around the table making inroads on giant burgers Tina and Gordy had collaborated to make both difficult and extremely messy to eat. The mad fliers each had a huge plate of fries along with the burger while the other 3 ate more modest amounts.

Even Gordy stared in disbelief as they each piled another burger with every available fixing and wolfed it down, then slowed as they split yet another one. They both leaned back and sighed at the same moment, fully sated. Charlotte let out a quiet belch and giggled at Mel’s look.

“Gotta have fuel! Got the drones ready?” The look of amazement turned to one of mulish stubbornness.

“Yes I do and you’re not going anywhere for an hour, not after eating like that! More to the point, I’m not going anywhere so cool your jets missy!” Mel got up and huffed off to the bathroom with Tina watching affectionately but unwilling to move just yet. They sat and talked until Yves got up to make use of another bathroom and Charlotte followed to show him the fastest way to get out of the suit. Afterward they lay in bed and drowsed for a half hour or so more before donning their suits again and emerging to find Mel ready to go.

After another fast trip offshore they were in the air with power replenished and Charlotte began walking him through the weapons systems. Yves had been aware they were carrying heavy weaponry but was astounded to discover the amount of firepower they were actually carrying. Over the course of the afternoon she checked him out thoroughly including live target practice with drones followed by drone vs human dogfights. Mel fueled and rearmed them several times, telling them to stand clear while she efficiently did in 5 minutes what would have taken either of them far longer.

Late in the afternoon, confident that he was fully able to use the capabilities of the Bat, Charlotte decided to demonstrate a particular landing technique if you needed to put it down immediately. Yves watched with interest as she marked a simulated ground level, then dove toward it, pulling up and flaring at the last moment while cutting loose with continuous fire on all weapons. The recoil slowed her past stall point until she pulled up to sit neatly on the invisible line before beginning to fall and recovering into flight.

Yves tried and on the third attempt managed to duplicate her maneuver although with his additional bulk he had to start firing and flare earlier to do it. Once he had the technique down it was time to land for real, this time on the water. That was useful in another way, teaching him how to get back in the air. In heavy configuration it meant turning upside down ad dragging along in the water until they got lift from surface effect, then flying that way until they were high enough to flip and fly upright. They flew for a while longer before diving down out of the sky to meet the waiting boat. He was still exhilarated by the day’s activities but the physical effort had them both sitting quietly while Mel brought them back home.

They took time afterward, cleaning all the gear including Bats, suits and weapons with careful instruction to Yves and the occasional scolding about mud in places that it shouldn’t be able to get into from Mel to Charlotte. Once everything had been downchecked and rechecked it was all stowed in a ready posture on Helga with Mel handing them each towels as they took off the suits.

“Mmmm, you smell good…” Charlotte murmured as she leaned into Yves and they half supported each other into their bedroom where they dressed in comfortable shorts and tops.

Yves took a moment and sniffed his armpit. “Well I don’t smell bad… not the way I’d expect to after the kind of workout we had today.” He leaned down, raised her arm and sniffed her armpit. “You on the other hand smell delicious! Another feature of the suit, eh?”

“Actually yes. All the yumminess of pheromones without all the nastiness of BO. It was an almost side-effect.” Yves raised his eyebrow at her. “You know, one of those things that’s like ‘Hey I can do 10 cool things at once and 3 other nifty but nonessential things for nothing extra so why wouldn’t I?’”

“Right. Insane scientist logic.”

“That’s Mad Scientist I’ll have you know!”

They made their way into the dining area and were sniffing appreciatively at the smells Gordy and Tina were generating. Mel joined them after being warned off by her girlfriend, although not before collecting a kiss. A huge meal arrived at the table shortly thereafter to be greeted by loud acclaim and they all sat down to demolish it. As they had at lunch Yves and Charlotte ate a truly astonishing amount of food, washing it down with large glasses of tea while the others ate more slowly. They all finished at roughly the same time although Charlotte was still working on another large wedge of pie.

She gestured at Gordy. “I haven’t had Rhubarb pie like this since I was a child. Around here people always ruin it with strawberries. Thanks Gordy!”

“I had to take my mind off the insane shit you two were doing. Very cool stuff… but absolutely batshit crazy. Charlie, that marsh run was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time and that little ambush you set for Yves was nothing short of brilliant. I knew you were there and still couldn’t spot you in his feed until the very last moment, probably about the same time he felt the first touch by the reaction time.”

Gordy went on to dissect both of their performances but had very little negative to say. “Overall,” He concluded, “I’ve rarely seen the equal of either of you on the ground, never in the water or air. I’d pity the poor bastards you’re after but I have no pity for slavers.”

“Thanks Gordy. We’re gonna do a night run about 0200 and I want you along for that too. Yves and I are gonna catch some sack time and we’ll see you at 0130.” Charlotte lead Yves into the bedroom where they spent a few moments nuzzling before falling asleep in each other’s arms, utterly exhausted.



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