It's been a while since I made a big post. Lots of people are still messaging me about the energy sector post, especially for the ENPH tip, so I'm here to show my portfolio. I don't own all companies yet, this is partially hypothetical. I'm holding on to a reasonable cash position for a possible new downturn, but I have starting positions in most companies and will DCA.
I will try to keep it summarized, as I have done quite a lot of analysis on each of them. I'll draw the main picture and give the most important arguments for my choices, but I'm not expanding too much. If you're interested, you can DM me to talk about them more.
Let me start by saying I'm a growth investor. I always look for a combination of growth with a great track record, if possible at a reasonable price. There are exceptions as you will see below, but the main balance stays the same. I'm not a defensive investor, but no aggressive one either. My timeline is 2-5 years at least (due to a possible start of a small business), but I would gladly hold on to these companies 10+ years.
TLDR; For you guys not interested in my portfolio, I've added a short list of interesting smaller cap companies at the end, most of them trading at decent values.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- ADVANCED MICRO DEVICES - $AMD
This one is becoming a blue chip, but has more than enough growth potential to live up to those high valuations. Preferred by gamers and beating their biggest competitor in the CPU market hard. While AMD and INTC were close competitors at the beginning of the 21st century, INTC took the lead by a lot. Since 2017, they introduced 7nm CPU's and GPU's and they are closing the gap fast. Not only are their chips more performant, they are also cheaper. Market cap $60B vs $261b.
Those next generation chips lead them to new partnerships, often beating INTC. Microsoft, a long time Intel customer, began using AMD chips in their Surface laptops. Lenovo using AMD for their new servers. Nvidia started using the chips in their AI products. AMD is also used by Apple's high-end laptops, while Intel (used in the budget range) will probably get replaced by Apple chips made in-house. Apart from laptops, AMD has government contracts to deliver supercomputers in 2021/2023 and they are used in both PS and XBOX consoles, to give a few examples.
For the CPU market, AMD is destined to take over, but they're also taking on NVDA for their GPU's. They have been catching up for years and in 2019 they finally made a better performing GPU in the $350-400 price range. There is a possibility to gain GPU market cap since NVDA has been pushing their prices due to the lack of competition. Therefore, with AMD stepping up their game, they need to give up market share or lower their margins. Financial
Assets over liabilities are x1.88. Cash to debt ratio well above industry average, debt to EBITDA well below IA. ROE 17.12% and ROIC 28.06%. Earnings were growing fast before Covid (125% in Q3, 78% in Q4). Yes they're overvalued, but with their future outlook, I would always buy below $49. Doubts
Now that they are done catching up, the question is, will they outperform in the future. To gain more market share of Nvidia, they need to be better, not equally good. AMD also needs to control the heating better, as it is one of their long term problems.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- MASTERCARD - $MA
Fintech companies like SQ and PYPL are a great investment. However, a lot of big companies will (and already did) implement online financial services. MA is able to easily work with multiple of those companies and they're using their global presence pretty well, that's why they're my pick for the fintech industry.
They launched Mastercard Accelerate last year, implementing those online paying platforms and letting start-ups take advantage of their global presence to grow and transform very fast. Last year they acquired Ethoca (managing e-commerce fraud) and Vyze (platform to connect merchants with multiple renders, giving them the opportunity to get those financial needs for start-ups). MA is basically helping start-ups to grow faster, which will result in more financial transactions in the future.
Last but not least, they like to focus on expanding to countries where there isn't much competition yet. They are expanding their exposure to Middle East and Africa, working with local networks and e-commerce platforms. They are in a strong position to capitalize those regions in the future and take on market leader Visa even more.
They get compared a lot to Visa, so I'll expand on that subject a bit as well. While V is focussing on performance and speed, MA plays the cyber security card. They are already working on ways to implement cryptocurrency and Mastercard tend to have more growth potential vs stability from market leader Visa. While V is in the lead, MA is more widely used by fintech companies, which shows potential take-over in the future. Next to their credit services, they also own debit service Maestro, which is widely used in Europe. Financial
Returns as high as 150% (ROE) and 60% (ROIC). Very large margins and perfectly stable balance sheet. High EPS growth YoY, 53% and 42% in the last two years. Quick ratio 1.87. V has more assets and even bigger margins, however MA wins in returns and cash. In terms of more growth, I like to focus on those last numbers more. Doubts
It's a blue chip at a $300B market cap. Their growth potential might be limited, although I see them as one of the better picks between blue chips.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- ENPHASE ENERGY - $ENPH
I already talked about solar energy in another post, so I'm gonna skip the explanation. As some of you know my choices were ENPH and SEDG, so I'll explain a bit about why I choose ENPH here. Mainly it's because of their financials, so I'll dive that straight away.
Quick ratio - 2.35 vs 1.74
ROE - 142.94% vs 21.51%
ROIC - 85.51% vs 25.81%
Net margin - 25.81% vs 10.28%
However I think SEDG balance sheet is a lot better and safer, ENPH is working on their future more efficient. They are paving the way smoothly with bigger margins and return on investments. Although SEDG might be the better pick right now, ENPH will be the better one in a short while. ENPH is also a bit less overvalued and their PEG ratio is lower, which makes them the better pick to get in right now.
Diving into the products as well, ENPH just has the better and more efficient product. Their micro inverters are more durable (20 vs 12 years) and give the chance to increase or decrease the amount of solar panels easily, depending on your personal situation.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- GALAPAGOS - $GLPG
I'm not a big fan of biotech companies, but these guys have my attention. Not because they're working on Covid vaccines, but because of two reasons. First one is them getting back-up from Gilead Sciences. That's the push they needed to start operating worldwide, increasing their potential market cap. Now that they have the cash from GILD, they can keep on buying interesting divisions and increase their growth. While having almost no long term debt, they are set pretty well with about $4 billion extra in cash.
Second, they have multiple medicines in later trial phases, with Filgotinib as their biggest one. They had a setback on those results, but the company is very confident, giving an opportunity to get them at a decent price. I wouldn't be surprised if they partner up with another big pharmaceutical company in the metabolic disease section. Financial
High PE (84 vs 44 average), but PEG ratio is 1.2. Quick ratio 9.28. ROIC 75.91% and ROE 7%. Became profitable this year with 16.25% net margin. 38.7% YoY EPS growth. Doubts
Like all biotech players, there's a lot depending on medicines getting through phase trials and being commercialized. If Filgotinib will fail, their stock will obviously fall. However since they are backed by a big US giant, they can commercialize the product faster and on a bigger global scale if trials succeed. That's what gives them the advantage in comparison to other biotech companies for me.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- WALT DISNEY - $DIS
This one has got me doubting a lot. I've taken them off and put them back on my list multiple times, but eventually I decided to keep them at least 2 years to see how they will evolve into streaming.
Biggest advantage they have on their competitors is they basically have a monopoly on kids entertainment. Kids are growing up with electronic devices and content, so they're creating customers at a very young age. That's how Coca Cola used to work. They targeted 14-16 year olds, dumping loads of money into advertising which resulted in life long customers, as people didn't change cola brands often.
Disney+ is a big hit and they won't get so much competition from other streaming services as Netflix and Roku will. They have one of the strongest defined brands out there and they know perfectly how to build and maintain their company. It's also still unclear how sports with public will evolve, but it's certain streaming will become even bigger after Covid. Therefore their money-losing ESPN acquisition could even turn into a moneymaker. Financial
I can't really say great things about their financials. ROE is 12.67%, above 10% is decent. Assets over liabilities are x1.85 and debt to equity is 0.61. You could apply the saying "too big to fail' here, but that's about it. The bad financials are mainly caused by their big investment to streaming of course and they're working on it hard. They doubled their cash position, increasing their quick ratio from 0.75 to 0.89. Doubts
I would say financials are their weak point here. They still have to go through some bad weather this and next year I would say. Them doubling their cash position in Q1 was soothing, as I see it being the biggest issue for the future. It might be better to wait it out and keep an eye on them for next year, but I wanted to take a position already. Not higher than 8% of my portfolio though.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- MICROSOFT - $MSFT
They don't really an introduction I guess. 2nd biggest player for cloud services with Azure. Naming Satya Nadella as CEO and making the transition from hardware to software in 2014 were the best decisions they could've made. Acquired the government contract with Pentagon, however there's still uncertainty about it. In short, Amazon is claiming they were about to win the contract, but Trump criticizing the company would've lead to calling off the deal. For me, that's probably the main reason why MSFT didn't fly as high as their fellow cloud competitors yet. Financial
Assets over liabilities x1.67. ROE and ROIC respectively at 43.82% and 28.88%. Quick ratio of 2.88, 0.65 debt to equity and 1.86 cash to debt. Decent financials, great returns. Talking about blue chips, I would say MSFT is still fairly valued with a PEG ratio just below industry average. Also paying a small dividend. Doubts
The Pentagon contract allegations could be pretty negative for the company. They will probably not come back on their decision, cause if they do, MSFT will claim they already made big investments towards them and things will just keep on dragging on. Even without the contract, MSFT should be a 10 year hold while buying on dips.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- INNOVATIVE INDUSTRIAL PROPERTIES - $IIPR
Haven't read a lot about them here on Reddit, but they're a very decent investment. Basically, they buy properties from cannabis companies and leases them back to the sellers, giving them the cash they need to grow faster and IIPR keeps the long term advantage of renting out those properties. They need to buy about 6-8 properties a year to keep their growth rate going and they already bought 7 this year. They still have a lot of cash ready to take advantage of the crisis.
Not only are they 20% undervalued right now, they have a lot more growth potential after that and on top of it, they pay close to 5% dividend. I'm not a big fan of betting on the best cannabis company for the future, but IIPR is a great buy to have exposure in that industry. It doesn't happen very often I come across a company that combines growth potential with a high dividend, but IIPR does. Financial
Quick ratio 6.75, cash to debt 2.8 (while REITs have an 0.07 average). Net margins 13% above average. Assets over liabilities x4.88. Annual EPS growing by more than 150% and about 41% in the last quarter before Covid. They just missed Q1 estimates, but it was only an 8% drop from Q4, performing way better than other REITs. Doubts
IIPR has held a lot of new investment rounds, diluting shares. Of course extra capital will result in higher growth and will eventually be positive in the long run. There has been a drop in these last few days due to the announcement of selling 1 million more shares soon. I would look at it as an opportunity to get an even better price on them.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- TELADOC HEALTH - $TDOC
It's the only company I don't own yet. I can't force myself to invest more than $140 per share for them, although I really like their business model. A lot of people are skipping doctors visits these days, going straight away to get medicines and counting on the advice of pharmacists. A lot of times, there's more examination needed.
Not only do I see them succeeding in their field, I see them as an essential part of the automation of the pharmacy industry. It's a useful tool in emergencies, giving advice and deciding how serious the condition is, if (fast) medical care is needed. Teladoc will also play a role in insurance and giving the employers a checking tool. 98.9% of their shares are owned by institutions. Financial
In terms of profitability and returns, not great of course. They are estimated to get profitable in 2023. Great balance sheet, assets over liabilities x2.66. Quick ratio 6.14, cash to debt 1.06, debt to equity 0.48. Doubts
It's hard to see if a company is well managed before they are profitable. Their moat isn't very narrow, however I feel being one of the first ones gives you a big advantage in this field.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- DRAFTKINGS - $DKNG
Gonna keep this one pretty short, there has been enough posts about Donkey Kong. For me, the most important factor for choosing them in this industry is their fantasy sports section. They are widely popular and that division will only get more interesting while online gambling, and especially in-game betting, gets more and more legalized in the US.
Although they realized major revenue growth in 2019, they almost doubled their earnings loss. Main reason of course having to develop their platform and system. Good thing is, their technology is highly scalable, meaning they margin will grow massively while expanding in to more states and countries. Not many ratios available yet, so that's about the only financial information I own atm.
The only negative I see is their pretty wide moat, so this one should be monitored more closely in the future. But for now, they have the momentum and are one of the most popular choices, great investment.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- RAYTHEON TECHNOLOGIES - $RTX
As many of you know, two great companies (UTC and RTN) merged together in April. While United focussed on aircraft engines (Pratt & Whitney), Raytheon manufactured weapons, military and commercial electronics. They always delivered advanced technologies and them gaining multiple government contracts in the last decade is confirmation of their performant products.
Raytheon will continue to grow their leadership in different segments. Because of their diversity, they seem perfectly in place to grow even more into an aerospace & defense giant. Engines, aerostructures, avionics, sensors, cybersecurity and other software solutions are just a few examples of their working fields. Financial
With a PE ratio of 13.58 and PB ratio of 1.41, this is probably the most undervalued stock in my portfolio. Assets over liabilities x1.43. The rest of their financials isn't that great. UTC was carrying a lot of debt, but because of the merger, it will be better balanced as RTN was only carrying $2 billion net debt. If they can decrease their debt and optimize their merger, they are set to be the new number one in defense. Doubts
It's still unclear how the merger will work out financially and logistically. In theory, they should be very well armed (pun intended) to take on LMT as market leader. Their exposure to commercial aircrafts is also a big threat, but it's less of an issue because they can make up with their other practices.
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As you can see, I've tried to get the best blue chips with still some growth potential and stable growth companies together. Since a lot of companies already got mentioned on this forum, I'll include a bonus round of interesting companies I came across during my search for the best companies. I didn't include them in my portfolio mainly because I feel the chance of them succeeding and living up to their future potential is more risky than others. For you looking for higher risk, higher reward, check out these companies below.
- $INMD. They offer minimally-invasive aesthetic medical products for various procedures, such as liposuction with simultaneous skin tightening, body and face contouring. They are actually the only company in my watchlist that scored maximum on my financial checklist. I love to watch their financials. While we're in an overvalued market, INMD has only 18.73 PE and 0.6 PEG. They certainly got hit by Covid, but I would be very surprised if they don't multiply their market share over the next years.
- $SMCI. Based mainly on servers and storage solutions. They are the supplier for cloud computing and AI based companies. They were ranked 18th fastest growing company by Fortune Magazine in 2016, but they still have a long way possible to grow. I see them stagnating a bit for a few years, but they definitely have potential in the long run. Financially very stable, big on cash to make some acquisitions and trading at only 14.84 PE.
- $CDLX. Great business model. They basically turn financial transaction data into valuable information for advertising. They show returns as high as 30:1 for advertising spent. Not only is the online payment industry growing fast, but after Covid companies will need to work their advertising budgets even more efficiently. CDLX has momentum and will increase that market cap massively. That future outlook has a price unfortunately and I feel they're too expensive right now.
- $OLED. They hold patents on ultra high definition OLED screen technology. There's still a large transition going on from LED to OLED screens. They are estimated to increase their manufacturing with 50% by the end of 2021. Unfortunately most of that growth is already priced in right now. It doesn't take away the longer term potential, but it doesn't make it that sexy of a buy right now.
- $OMCL. Omnicell provides pharmacy automation solutions and other tools for healthcare systems. Big on cash, low on debt. They have an interesting business and the automation of healthcare will continue to grow, however they are also trading a bit above value.
- $PCOM. A technology company based on e-commerce and services through loyalty programs. Most of their partners are airlines, which explains their difficulties of getting back up since the drop. At the moment it's unsure how this will work out. There will barely be room for bargains or rewards, however while the industry has to build up again, there's an opportunity to take away long time customers from competitors. Although they have enough cash to weather this crisis, they are depending on the industry. At PE below 10 and having a decent cash position, it's worth a gamble.
- $APPS. Digital Turbine offers a mobile platform mainly for new apps. They have a very high future revenue forecast of 202.2% over the next 3 years. Big on cash and no debt as well. They already acquired Mobile Posse in March, diversifying their platform. Analysts are putting an average price target of $9.88 on them, giving it a 61% potential return.
- $NVMI. They develop and produce process control systems used in the manufacturing of semiconductors, mainly focussing on industrializing X-ray and optical technologies like holographic images. Cash to debt 6.1, debt to equity 0.1, quick ratio 5.75, ROE 12.83% and ROIC 20.26%. Their financials are great. The only thing you could say is they are slightly overvalued, but still a very nice buy in comparison to the overvalued tech industry.
- $INS. Active in the fintech sector, they provide tech solutions and processing services. Very similar financials to NVMI. Big on cash, almost no long term debt, great returns (ROE 29.7% / ROIC 85.95%) and steady growing EPS. They are also slightly overvalued, but should easily get back to $45 range after the crisis is over.
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So, that's about all I have to share. This will also be my last big post a while. Analyzing stocks has been my main occupation for the last three months, but it's time to work on opening up the hotel and bar again. I hope some of you get something out of this. I'm not a professional so always check again for yourself. I'm gonna hold on to these companies for a while now. Will add some extra capital at the beginning of 2021, so you could expect another big post about my newest findings then. For now, I'm gonna take a break from following the market day in day out and enjoy the weather a bit more.
Have a good one!
DKNG has seen huge gains this week, mostly focused on Tuesday and today, Thursday. Both days saw intraday spikes on sports-world news: on Tuesday afternoon a presser with Gary Bettman was announced and on Thursday it was announced that the Premier League would return in June. Oddly, the stock did not move back down at all after Bettman’s announcement turned out to just be an expanded playoff format, and nothing about a return to the ice. The Premier League news didn’t seem to have much impact on other sports betting stocks either. submitted by
Both of these events point towards something that seems obviously clear: DraftKings’ stock is hugely overpriced, but seems to keep being driven up just by trading. I think there are cases to be made for short term bull or bear, and for long term bear. I’m already in on the long term bear case with Nov ‘20, Dec ‘20 and Jan ‘21 Puts that have all taken a beating, but debating what the profitable short term play is.
For some context, I used to trade bonds on one of the biggest desks in NY, but moved to be closer to family a while ago and run my own business. My state is not supported by DraftKings, so keep in mind when reading that I am a bit salty towards the company and their ability to sniff out VPNs. Been a long time lurker here, but this is my first post.
The company’s Q1 earnings was pretty enlightening and quite the spin job. I was shocked to see the stock rise that day after what I read to be a pretty poor outcome. Growth in marketing expenses can be written off as entering new states, but seeing no growth in net revenue despite 30% growth in gross revenue means that the company has a growth problem, in other words almost all the revenue growth was driven by giving away free bets and reducing vig. Let’s look further at revenue growth though.
I found it very interesting that the company led with “30% revenue growth” when, in fact, that was only at Old DraftKings, which makes up about 75% of New DraftKings revenue. SBTech makes up the rest and grew at only 3%, giving the public company a 23% growth rate for the quarter, not 30% - spin job.
The company also gave us an interesting insight into coronavirus’ impact on their business, maybe unintentionally. At Old DraftKings, they noted 60% growth through March 10th. If we assume each day through the quarter is equal, that means the last 21 days of the quarter would have been down 70% vs Q1 ‘19, that’s big. However, we know not all days are created equal in the world of sports, and Q1 included 5 NFL playoff days and the Super Bowl. If we assume NFL betting days are 3x a normal day and the Super Bowl is 3x a normal NFL day, you can see your way to revenue post-March 10th being down 95%. A similar look at SBTech’s drop from +19% to only +3% means revenue post-coronavirus is down at least by half.
Another interesting lens to use in looking at the company is how they pitched themselves when the merger was announced five months ago in December. On slide 22 they compare their valuation to a variety of comps, trying to show that the valuation is fair, probably trying to alleviate the fact that the valuation for DraftKings was about 4x what Paddy Power paid for FanDuel 18 months earlier. I’m going to ignore the “EV / 2021E Revenue – Growth Adjusted” multiple that they highlight, because adjusting a forward looking multiple based on your own forward looking growth projections is absolute garbage, and instead look at EV / TTM 3/31 Revenue for those same comps.
At $39 per share, DraftKings has a market cap a bit over $15 billion on TTM revenue of $451 million, giving them a revenue multiple of 33.7x. For those of you that haven’t been around the block a few times, that is outrageously high. The “High Growth Consumer Internet” category that they selected is at 8.1x and “EU Sportsbook Operators” at 3.6x. Their best comp is probably Flutter, which is Paddy Power + Fanduel + Stars, trades at 7.8x. DraftKings deserves a higher multiple than Flutter given that they are pure-play USA vs Flutter which has a lot of retail european revenue that isn’t high growth, but the two companies currently have the same market cap, despite FanDuel being a direct comp to DraftKings with more market share in the fast growing business segments. Even if you said DraftKings should trade at a 50% premium to Flutter, which is being very generous, that implies a share price of only $13.50.
I know what you’re going to say: “this is all about more states allowing sports betting.” Fine, let’s look at what would need to happen at the state-level to get DraftKings’ current valuation to be reasonable. Going back to the December investor presentation, DraftKings estimates their sports book net revenue at $2.3 billion given 25% market share and 65% of the US having online betting, with a 22% allowance for promos from Gross to Net. That let’s us back into $4.5 billion of gross revenue at 100% of the population. Let’s then give them a 30% bump on that for iGaming. Using the company’s current $15 billion valuation and the same 50% premium to Flutter’s revenue multiple above (11.7x) that means they need $1.28 billion of revenue, or $831 million more than they currently have. $831 million more revenue needed means they need 14% more of the population to legalize in the very short term. Of the big five states, CA, TX, FL, NY and PA, none are going to add any population, with PA already online, NY choosing retail-only and the other three being no where close to legalization and widely considered by researchers and lobbyists to be years away. The remaining 46 states, including DC, average 1.3% of the population each, meaning you need a windfall of states to add 14% of the population.
Don’t get started on nationally legalized sports betting, no one is even pushing for that and it is never going to happen. The SCOTUS repeal of PASPA was as much about taking away the Federal Government’s ability to make national decisions like allowing or disallowing sports betting as it was about sports betting itself. Sports betting will roll out throughout the US, but it is going to be a state-by-state slog.
Another thing to consider is what the company might do with its highly valued stock. As we saw with Tesla a few months ago, a big run up in stock price is a great time to do some financial maneuvering. I think there are two very good options for management right now. The first is obvious: follow-on equity offering. In going public via a reverse merger with a SPAC, DraftKings barely tapped the big institutional investors. A follow-on would be a great way to load up the coffers further - anyone that watched TV in 2015 knows they love to spend money on ads - at a very attractive valuation for the company. The problem with this is that new shares coming in, or the follow-on pricing poorly, could be a big drag on the current share price.
Another option might be a little less obvious, but I think could make a lot of sense for the company: Buy William Hill. William Hill currently has a market cap of about $1.5 billion. They have a huge footprint in Europe, a market that DraftKings previously tried and (largely) failed to enter, are a big threat to DraftKings’ DTC approach in the US and have the tech that powers much of the land-based casinos’ sportsbook operations in the US. DraftKings could buy them with their cheap stock, or issue new equity to raise money for the acquisition. DraftKings would add a ton of revenue, could cut lots of duplicated costs, diversify across geographies and sports to temper their seasonality, and replace WillHill’s outdated tech with their much better apps. The big downside is that the CEOs of the two companies seem to really dislike each other.
One reason that I think the stock could be up so much since the “IPO” is that there are a very small number of liquid shares. Remember that this wasn’t an IPO at all, it was a reverse merger with a SPAC, meaning that a much higher percentage of outstanding shares are currently locked up than would be in a typical IPO. That constraint on supply with big retail demand could be a huge driver in the stock gain.
Circling back to be three cases for what I think could happen: - Short term bull: Sports come back, stock (irrationally) trades up on it - Short term bear: Correction to a more realistic valuation, bulls taking gains, any of NHL, NBA, MLB announce they won’t play again in 2020, financial maneuvering by the company - Long term bear: Correction to a more realistic valuation, bulls taking gains, any of NHL, NBA, MLB announce they won’t play again in 2020, financial maneuvering by the company, Q2 or Q3 earnings disappoint/are eye opening, any blip to the NFL cash cow, NBA or NHL ‘20-’21 season delays, lockup ending in October
Just giving my two cents on how I’m looking at this and trading it, and curious to hear any other thoughts or theories on real reasons why the stock is moving and where it is going.
Last thought: for those of you that like DraftKings at this price, you should LOVE Flutter at this price.
Phoebe Hiro, now the Head Commander of the Anti-Demon Resistance, paces back and forth in front of six hand-picked leaders of the various warfronts. Her guests sit on rocks set in the middle of the field not far behind the warp-gate encampment's western wall, while all of them face her and listen intently to what she has to say. Their names and ranks become unimportant as she looks at them with the eyes of a hawk. To the Hero's Wife, these people are merely weapons she must carefully wield in defense of humanity and its monster allies.
In the front row sits General Chadwick, Princess Brunhilda, and Corporal Hurent, along with Blinker, the monster queen. Behind them sits Lieutenant Samuel and Elder Skarde.
General Chadwick, Neil's number one. A black-haired Norwegian with a thick, three-inch-long beard. He wears a long, thin black coat, one designed to allow the air to cool him during the summertime, while his navy-blue military uniform underneath gives him a commanding presence. Chadwick's six-plus-foot height, in addition to his giant muscles and rotund belly, makes him stand out among all the others present. In social situations, he is the one who defeats his drinking opponents, while in grave situations, he is the strong and silent type.
Brunhilda, the Felorian princess. A chocolate-skinned, well-proportioned warrior with long white hair and countless white tattoos across her face and body. She wears only an animal-skin bra and loincloth, revealing her muscled abs and arms. As a tribeswoman, her domineering attitude comes not from stuck-up haughtiness, but from two decades of careful grooming by her parents, the former King and Queen of planet Feloria. Having bowed and acquiesced to the demons her whole life, she now sits and faces the Hero's Wife with a grave expression, knowing she may soon perish in battle while protecting her planet's tribes. At the least, she may enable a new future for her people, one where they no longer cower at the feet of their demonic oppressors.
Corporal Hurent, a decorated veteran with several military accomplishments. Her black hair sits in a ponytail, draped over her left shoulder, while Blinker sits on her right. Combined with her smooth, olive-green military uniform, and lightly bronzed white skin, she appears almost like a shorter, more tomboyish version of General Chadwick. Not bothering with makeup, she has a 'harder' edge to her appearance than Phoebe or Brunhilda, yet her eyes reveal she longs for the war to end. Battle is not in her nature, but merely her current call to action.
Blinker, the Monster Queen. She wears a tiny little set of cream-colored battle armor, crafted in advance by her mother two years prior. Her bright red hair contrasts with the white armor to give her the appearance of a cute little Valkyrie. When combined with her moth-like wings, the trifecta completes itself, making her resemble a battle-angel. Blinker sits on Corporal Hurent's right shoulder, the two of them somewhat close thanks to their interactions over the past few years.
Lieutenant Samuel, a hard-nosed man with a violent past. The ebony-skinned soldier sports several dreadlocks and a mean scar going across his forehead. He rests his elbows on his legs and leans forward, a look of intense concentration on his face. Combined with his camouflage-fatigues, he looks ready to step into the jungle and disappear amongst its foliage. Few of the leaders gathered have anywhere near the same intense look in their eyes, a testament to how much he hates the demons and what they've taken from him.
Finally, Elder Skarde, one of several tribal elders from the planet Locklorn. As their designated envoy, Skarde speaks for all the people of his world. His skin appears the darkest of all, giving him a rich, coal-colored hue capable of blending in with the night. Skarde's carefully maintained, short-cropped hair combines with his purple and gold robes to give him the air of a merchant king, one with money flowing like rivers. A peaceful man, Elder Skarde nevertheless sets aside his misgivings for the sake of his world. While he might prefer seeking peace with the demons and forgiving their transgressions, he likewise would never consider rolling over and letting them destroy his extended family. He draws a hard line in the sand, one he will never let the demons cross.
With all six of the most important leaders assembled before Phoebe, the recently promoted Tarus II Commander begins pacing back and forth.
"Thank you all for coming. I'd like to have gathered more people, but it's probably best if you simply relay today's briefings to the relevant subordinates. We don't have much time to waste, so I'll get right down to business."
Phoebe shoots a glance at the walls of the warp-gate encampment, listening for a moment to hear if any battles have broken out due to the warp-gate's unexpected opening. Luckily, everything remains quiet and calm.
"I don't know how long we have before the demons clear out the Core, but I do know they will, eventually
," Phoebe begins, as she returns her attention to those assembled. "The question afterward is how long we have until the demons get the warp-gates back online."
Corporal Hurent raises her hand. "Commander, one thing has been bothering me. We destroyed the computers which control the Core's warp-gates. How can the demons reactivate them? Without the Core's server infrastructure, won't it be impossible for the demons to calculate Tarus II's travel vectors?"
The Corporal's question, prodding at the very nature of warp-gate travel, elicits several nods from the other leaders. After all, from what they understand, calculating the relative position of a planet in the vastness of space, its orbital position, its current facing, and the exact position of the warp-gate on said planet should be impossible without a vast amount of computing power to assist.
However, to the assembled leaders' surprise, Phoebe shakes her head. "Our opponent is no ordinary demoness. She is Ose, the Emperor of Infiltration, and the creator of warp-gate technology. Co-creator, technically, but a distinction which matters little in this context. I've spoken with Samantha on several occasions regarding Ose, and everything she's had to say about our enemy's abilities left me feeling shaken and worried. Ose's brain functions on a level far beyond ours, with unmuddled thoughts capable of computing information thousands of times more quickly than anyone else. She is, essentially, a living bio-computer."
Continuing, Phoebe adds, "Further, my husband once used Solomon's Crown to calculate the jump-vectors from Tarus II's warp-gate back to the Core. Kar watched him do it. If Jason can perform such a feat, I imagine the creator of warp-gate technology can do so as well."
The Commander's words end that line of questioning by the other generals. They fall silent and listen as Phoebe continues with her original train of thought.
Phoebe clears her throat. "Ahem. The battle for the Core was over far faster than anyone, especially Neil, first thought possible. Our enemies caught us off-guard with their new, armored soldiers. It seems likely they won't have any more of those terrifying Baron-level bastards available to hit us with, but we should naturally prepare for them. In the meantime, shifting to open terrain instead of the enclosed corridors of the Core will benefit humanity's forces greatly. Our weapons work best when engaging our enemies from a distance. The further they have to travel, the more time we have to kill them before they close the gap."
After pausing for a moment to rifle through her bag, Phoebe pulls out a tiny dime-sized device and presses it against the side of her head, just above her right ear. A small red LED on its side blinks twice once attached, then turns off. Afterward, she pulls out a baseball-shaped mechanical object, then lightly tosses it into the air. Elder Skarde and Brunhilda both reflexively flinch when the device doesn't fall to the ground, but instead stops in midair and hovers next to Phoebe.
"This is my Hovering Personal Assistant. I call him 'Happy.' Happy helps me with all sorts of things, but today, he'll be helping all of you
to understand my thoughts."
Phoebe concentrates for a moment. She transmits images from her brain through the device stuck to her head and into Happy. In turn, the hovering metal baseball bobs in the air for a moment before beaming out a projected image of Tarus II's landscape, primarily the 20-mile range around and between Hero City and the warp-gate encampment.
The other leaders watch in fascinated silence as Phoebe points toward a small mountain range just over a mile north of the warpgate encampment. "This location is known as the Sphinx Mountain Range, and is going to be a critically important asset we must protect once the demons invade. How many of you have visited it before?"
Elder Skarde and Samuel both shake their heads. General Chadwick, Corporal Hurent, and Blinker all offer hesitant nods, while Brunhilda's are the most emphatic of all. Upon noticing the recognition in the Felorian Princess's eyes, Phoebe smiles. "Brunhilda, what makes you so familiar with that region?"
"I enjoy climbing mountains to gaze at the world from their vistas," Brunhilda replies. "Since that region offers a breathtaking view of the distant ocean, I have scaled it numerous times."
Phoebe's smile stretches further. "Did you ever happen to notice the artillery battlement I built there?"
A look of surprise appears on Brunhilda's face. The Felorian Princess scratches her head sheepishly. "Ah, no? What do you mean, Commander Hiro?"
"Three years ago, Jason and I worked together to build several fortifications for Tarus II. One of those happened to be a network of long range auto-cannon installations in the Sphinx Mountain Range. Observe."
Phoebe's robo-assistant, Happy, releases a cute high-pitched chirp. "Beep-boop!"
Immediately, a second hologram appears, one of a gigantic gun more than a hundred feet tall, with three cannon barrels aimed diagonally into the sky. The whole thing rests upon a square turret base, with rotatable joints and motors allowing it to adjust its firing angle and distance. The menacing weapon makes all of the leaders gathered raise their eyebrows in surprise.
"Wow!" Blinker gasps. "Phoebe, you built that thing? It's huge!"
Chadwick stands up and walks closer to more carefully scrutinize the artillery cannon. "Very impressive. Why have I heard nothing about this?"
"Because it's one of my many secret weapons," Phoebe says, a tricky smile playing upon her lips. "I call it a King Cannon. We've always worried about demonic spies in our ranks. Bad actors among our fellow humans and monsters might also be an issue, too. I built these cannons in absolute secrecy, telling only Jason and Solomon. Not even Samantha knows of their existence."
Elder Skarde snorts. "Just as well."
"Samantha will never betray humanity," Phoebe snaps, glaring viciously at the elder. "Don't think I've forgotten some of the hurtful things you said. I'd advise you to keep your mouth shut about her if you don't want my foot shoved where the sun doesn't shine."
Chadwick remains silent. As one of Neil's closest confidantes, he too has no trust for the succubus. Still, he knows better than to disparage her in front of Phoebe, especially given the circumstances.
"Ahem," Lieutenant Samuel clears his throat. "If I may. You mentioned cannons, plural. How many of these have you built?"
Phoebe turns away from Skarde to look at Samuel behind him. "Ten. They function by firing shells over long distances which explode shortly before striking the ground. These explosions release hundreds of iron rods, each one capable of stabbing through even the heaviest armor. No demon will be able to withstand a shelling from the King Cannons. I have several other types of ammunition present as well, including explosive munitions, poison gas, and acid for melting flesh. Needless to say, we must ensure our troops don't get caught in the crossfire."
"And," Phoebe adds, "that is one of the biggest problems we face. The King Cannons are explosively powerful and more than capable of turning tens of thousands of demons into puddles of blood. However, they lack precision. They're a double-edged sword capable of harming our soldiers. I plan to use them only if our troops fail to prevent the demons' advance from the warp-gate. That's why I will now move on to the next strategic point."
Commander Hiro disables the hologram for the King Cannon while Chadwick takes his seat. She returns to the original hologram, the one showing Tarus II's topography.
"On the north side of Hero City we have ten Covenant ships to protect. On the south side are the Pyramids. On the east, we have a mixture of forested woodlands and some hilly terrain. Between Hero City and the Warp-gate Encampment, we have the Horned Forest, with all manner of vicious predators hiding amongst its trees, and the vast open plains where we will most likely engage with demonkind if they take over the encampment. Looking at the encampment itself, we have the King Cannons to the north, Tarus II's great ocean to the west, and finally the southern side."
Phoebe clears her throat. "Here, we run into another problem. Some of you may not be familiar with the southern region, as we rarely go there. It's filled with canyons and ravines deep enough to kill anyone if they should stumble inside. The deepest one reaches half a mile into the planet's crust, so, needless to say, not many people go there. However, it is also home to another of my secret facilities."
"Another?" Corporal Hurent asks, her jaw turning slack. "Just how many facilities have you built?"
Phoebe's smile dims. "Too many to handle on my own, but not enough to guarantee our safety."
That reply makes the Corporal close her mouth and nod along silently. Phoebe continues by activating another hologram, this time showing a massive network of buildings carved into the side of a ravine. The facility stretches far enough into the distance that it goes past the edge of the hologram where nobody can see its end.
"By the Creator..." Lieutenant Samuel mutters. "You've been holding out on us."
"Indeed. This facility is one I haven't even told Jason about. I built it by myself."
Phoebe's casual attitude stuns everyone present. Blinker jumps off Corporal Hurent's shoulder and flies over to Phoebe. "What?! How could you build all that by yourself? That's impossible!"
While the fairy buzzes around the hologram with wide-open eyes, Phoebe chuckles. "Believe me, I did. Don't you remember six years ago, when Jason used to build houses and apartments for people with his Wordsmithing? I created a tool that could synthesize simple square structures out of energy, one which could project and build walls, ceilings, and floors. I built this facility with an upgraded version of that device."
A huge, giddy smile spreads across Chadwick's face. "Absolutely amazing. I never imagined we had a facility like this at our disposal, nor that you would be its sole builder. What is its function, Commander Hiro? Why did you build it in such an out-of-the-way location?"
"It's not out-of-the-way at all," Phoebe clarifies. "This facility's purpose is to create war-machines capable of leveling battlefields, and so I needed it somewhere close where I could send them barreling toward the front lines within minutes. That Planet-Walker I demonstrated earlier came from here, as well as many similar machines. I wanted to ensure we had extremely powerful trump cards prepared, should the demons ever invade. Secrecy was even more important, as I couldn't chance the demons learning of their existence."
Corporal Hurent raises her hand. "Hold on a moment. Regarding not only this robot-creation-facility, but also the King Cannons, how can we train enough people to pilot and control your machines? Those cannons look like they will require countless soldiers to aim and fire them, while the robots you've constructed will doubtless require intense training to use them to their fullest capacity. Have you trained anyone in secret as pilots? Or, perhaps... might these machines be fully autonomous?"
"Neither," Phoebe replies. "The Planet-walkers and other mecha are, indeed, autonomous, but I will require pilots inside them for target designation purposes. Each robot is capable of basic decision-making, but a human in the cockpit is our surest bet for strategically taking out demons wherever they appear. As for the King Cannons, the situation is similar. I will require a few personnel to man them for the sake of designating targets, but their roles will be minor. A bigger issue comes from fuel and munition supplies, which is the next thing I'd like to mention."
Phoebe waves away the southern facility's hologram, returning to the topographical Tarus II map.
"Look here. The King Cannons are immensely powerful, but they are also fragile. Once the demons figure out the cannons' location, if they choose to attack them, they can easily destroy them. I've protected the King Cannons, as well as my southern facility, with holographic obfuscation technology. Even up close, it's nearly impossible to locate the cannons, but every time they fire, the stealth net will go down for a moment, revealing their position. This will make it easy for the demons to find and destroy them."
Blinker nods. "Like Ose's mansion."
"Additionally," Phoebe continues, "the King Cannons have limited ammunition available. I always envisioned them as being supplementary to Jason and Hope's power, giving us a powerful area-attack, but with the Wordsmiths missing, they will end up being our primary suppression device against the demons. If so, then we'll need to establish munition supply lines to keep them continuously firing at all times. The supply line will come from the east side of Hero City up along the northern border until it reaches the Horned Forest. From there, it will continue until it reaches the Sphinx Mountain Range, where the personnel we place can take the shells and reload the King Cannons. At any point, demons might disrupt this supply line, thus rendering the cannons useless. Without ammunition, they will be little more than giant, decorative statues atop the mountains."
Brunhilda pipes up. "So, you wish for me to take control of protecting the King Cannons?"
"That's right. While the number of personnel required to operate the King Cannons is minimal, we will need a substantial number of troops available to guard the mountains themselves from demonic attacks. Think you're up to the task?"
"Naturally," Brunhilda replies.
Phoebe nods. "Good. I have some positive news to report as well, which you all will doubtless find comforting."
She touches the hologram and draws a circle around the warp-gate encampment. "I came up with a temporary fix for the burrower problem. I didn't want them to easily breach our lines by burrowing under us, so I cobbled together a few experimental devices. I call them 'seismic mines.' They detonate when they detect seismic activity nearby. If the Burrowers try to dig a tunnel near a seismic mine, they will perish a quick, explosive death."
Blinker lands on Phoebe's shoulder. "When the heck did you make those?"
"Today," Phoebe says. "Took me about eight hours. I only synthesized a couple hundred of them, and I attached them to mechanical moles to ensure they end up deep beneath our feet. However, given my limited amount of time, I only managed to surround the warp-gate encampment with them, as well as place a few beneath Hero City. Once a few Burrowers explode, they'll doubtless be able to continue forward, unabated. Luckily, the sensors will still give me an idea of where they're headed."
"You think of everything." Brunhilda says, admiration in her eyes.
"I wish that were the case. I'm only human, so I can't anticipate a demon's thought processes. Doubtless, Ose is sure to find a gap in our defenses. Don't get starry-eyed on me, not unless we actually survive this awful war."
Once again, Phoebe points at the holographic map. "Look over here, to the west of the encampment. There are thirty-seven miles of unprotected land between here and the ocean. If the demons escape in that direction, they'll be able to spread out and go around our borders, as I haven't built any defenses in that area. The King Cannons can certainly fire that far, but their accuracy and coverage will decrease substantially. Lieutenant Samuel, I'll rely on you to keep an eye on the western and southern sides of the encampment, while Princess Brunhilda will be in charge of guarding the Sphinx Mountains to the north. We cannot let the demons stake out a safe haven to the west. If they do, they'll likely summon countless portals to the Labyrinth, removing our chokepoint advantage. We have to keep them pinned down at the Tarus II warp-gate, or else they will rapidly overwhelm us with numbers."
Samuel nods. "As long as I get to kill bloodskins, you can count me in."
Phoebe frowns. "Demons, Lieutenant. Demons.
Enough with the god-damned slurs."
"I don't care if you like my language or not," Samuel says, his face emotionless. "Bloodskins killed my brother. They butchered him like livestock. Don't preach to me that compassion nonsense. In my eyes, they're all filthy animals in need of extermination."
"Demons tortured my people for countless generations," Elder Skarde chimes in. "We have known nothing but fear and subservience to the bloodskins my whole life. Commander Phoebe, you may feel some twinge of compassion for the murderous wretches, but we do not. We only fight the bastards because of the horrors they've exacted upon us. If you want our help, then you will
find a way to deal with our feelings."
After seeing the other two leaders stand up for their beliefs, Chadwick adds his two cents. "With all due respect, Commander, how many demons do you know who are righteous and pure? One? Ten? A hundred? You may have the utmost faith in Belial and others like her, but we do not. I have fought alongside Neil and Hope countless times when rescuing human slaves from the core. Some of the things I saw..."
The General starts to fall silent, only to notice a look of curiosity in the faces of Elder Skarde and Princess Brunhilda, both of whom have never stepped foot in the Labyrinth except for its Core.
"I saw a young man who was half-dead," Chadwick mutters, his voice low. "the poor kid had all the skin on his back melted and fused together. His bloodskin tormentor pressed him against a wall after burning him, then left him there, with his skin stuck to the stone. When Hope found him, the boy was half-dead and delirious with pain. It took Hope fifteen minutes of Wordsmithing to heal the boy's injuries. The lad later killed himself because of the lasting mental pain we couldn't erase."
General Chadwick glances at Phoebe, noticing with interest that for once, she doesn't appear angry at his words. "That boy was not the exception, but the rule. The bloodskins treat us worse than cattle, worse than bugs. They enjoy our suffering. I see no way we can ever truly cohabit with them. Perhaps you might be capable of picking out one or two decent ones, but the rest are all irredeemable, violent psychopaths. We must eradicate them for the good of the galaxy."
Despite a three-pronged verbal assault from Samuel, Elder Skarde, and Chadwick, Phoebe appears unmoved.
"Do you think I don't know all that?"
Commander Hiro tilts her chin up slightly, allowing her to look down upon the still-seated Chadwick.
"I'm well aware of the atrocities demons have committed. I am not Jason, and as such, I don't believe in trying to save all, or even most of them. My husband is a good man. He tries to look at demons as sinners, those who were led astray early in their history. They were born from bloodshed, and so that is all they know. Or so Jason claims."
Phoebe raises her hand and waggles a finger. "I do not think the same thoughts as Jason, General Chadwick. I do not believe demons are necessarily redeemable, but I do
believe that they are not irredeemable
is why I find myself disgusted when you refer to them with such gross, offensive slurs. Not because I think your hatred is misguided, but because as long as we treat them as inherently evil villains, we will never have even a chance to mend the rift between our species. Hate the demons and wish for their deaths all you want, for I will not stop you from thinking such thoughts. However, please understand that we humans must be better than our enemies. We must show them with our conduct that, so long as they own up to their actions and accept the appropriate punishment, we will always be willing to forgive, if not forget their pasts."
The Commander falls silent, allowing her words to germinate in the ears of those present. Blinker sits on her shoulder silently, saying nothing, while Brunhilda and Corporal Hurent stew in their own private thoughts.
General Chadwick rubs his knee contemplatively. "Hrm. I do not fully understand why you so often choose to defend the demons. Perhaps I never will. I merely wish you would not try to dissuade people from referring to the demons as 'bloodskins,' like they deserve."
"'Deserve' is a strong word, General," Phoebe retorts. "From what I've gathered, humanity stomped on the faces of the demons countless generations ago, and they retaliated in kind. Do we not deserve hatred from them as well?"
"That is a different situation entirely."
"So you claim," Phoebe snaps back. "But, if you so desperately wish to lump all the members of a sentient species under one definition, I suppose I cannot stop you. We haven't time to sit here and wax philosophical about our beliefs, so let's just hold off on the comebacks for today. If we survive this invasion, we'll return to this discussion at a later time."
Chadwick nods. "Very well."
Elder Skarde and Samuel both share a glance with one another, revealing neither of them plans to change their minds, but at the least, they fall silent to allow Phoebe's continued debriefing.
"Right. Let's finish this, then," Phoebe says. The Commander disables the Tarus II topographical map, and instead summons a series of images of various soldiers standing at attention, all of them wearing basic military uniforms with T-REX's strapped across their chests.
"I've finished doling out the new exosuit models I prepared in advance. Allow me to debrief you on their functionality."
The first trooper's image shimmers and shifts, adorning him in a shiny silver armor, one which all of the generals are familiar with.
"This is the basic T-REX, a mass-produced model with no obvious flaws that merely enhances the average human warrior's speed and durability to beyond that of a Demon Lord. It also helps with aim assist on projectile-based weapons, and features a low-level pilot-assistance mode capable of augmenting its wearer's dodging capabilities mid-battle. An excellent suit for any beginner, but one the demons have long grown used to seeing."
The next trooper also shifts his appearance, appearing in a silver-and-red exosuit with a few utility modules attached to its arms and waist. The red coloration extends in a cross-like shape across the trooper's chest.
"This is Mark I of the Clinician battlesuit. It has lower strength and speed than the basic T-REX, but in exchange, it features greater durability and advanced pilot assistance support. I designed it with our battlefield medics in mind. We can't rely on rescue devices to save all of our downed troops, so having field medics on hand will be essential to saving as many lives as possible. The Clinician also features several medical devices capable of prolonging a dying soldier's life, including nano-injectors to seal and repair wounds."
Corporal Hurent, one of the more technically-minded of the leaders present, nods appreciatively. "I'd have liked to have a few of those on hand when we fought in the Core."
"As would we all," Phoebe replies.
The Commander moves on to the third exosuit, one with an identical silver coloring scheme to the first exosuit, but with four 'struts' sticking out of its back.
"Previously, we've had to rely on Harpies for their excellent battlefield mobility and flight capabilities. Now, we have another option. The Mark I Hummer is our first flight-capable battlesuit, but I've only managed to manufacture fifty of them, so far. The wing struts on the back allow for limited durations of swift flight, but extended amounts of hovering capabilities. Think of them as mobile sniper platforms, rather than flying assault weapons."
"I can already imagine several uses for the Hummer," Chadwick says, his voice low.
Phoebe doesn't reply. She activates the next hologram, revealing a truly menacing-looking exosuit, one with gold and black coloration, a metal horn on its helmet, and two others on its shoulders. With much bulkier armor than the previous exosuits, as well as a long impaling rod sticking out above each wrist, it looks like a nasty melee-capable battlesuit.
Audible gasps go up among the leaders present, making Phoebe smile.
"This is the Mark I Rhino. Truly exclusive, I've only made twenty of them. Each is a precious asset, featuring fifty percent thicker armor than other exosuits and razor-sharp nanite rods for 'sticking it' to the demons. Advanced cooling capabilities also make it effectively immune to flame-based attacks from all but the most extreme sources. I designed them for frontline usage, improving the power of each of our best commandos. Naturally, I hope you'll be the first to try one out, Samuel."
Lieutenant Samuel grins evilly. "Oh, yes. I'll be able to do a lot of damage with one of those."
"I'm sure you will. Let's finish with the last two suits, both of which you should all be familiar."
This time, the holographic trooper shifts his appearance into a stealthy jet-black exosuit, one with the same sleek design as the basic exosuit model, but fewer 'cracks' it its surface. Most notably, four long, metallic 'tendrils' stick out of its back and writhe around like an ant's antennae.
Chadwick blinks in surprise. "A Spectre? We have hundreds of those already, don't we?"
"Correct. This Spectre is different, though, as it's a second generation exosuit. I'm sure all of you have noticed the odd-looking tendrils on its back. I call them 'Needlers,' and they will be key for maximizing the Mark II's improvements over the first generation. In addition to greatly improved passive stealth capabilities in shadow, the Mark II Spectre can initiate Level III cloaking at will, granting it five minutes of near-perfect stealth capabilities. Most importantly, it now features nearly infinite Level II stealth capabilities, meaning it can remain invisible indefinitely so long as the user keeps their movement to a minimum. It will be excellent for setting up ambushes."
"What function do the 'Needlers' perform?" Brunhilda asks. "They look like headless black snakes."
"More than you can imagine," Phoebe replies. "The Needlers allow the user to scale walls and cliffs, assassinate multiple enemies at once, manipulate tools, and countless other such feats. Think of them as four additional limbs, each one stronger and much more flexible than your arm. They can wrap around an enemy's neck to choke him out, or they can pick locks by deforming their shape... the possibilities are endless."
"Amazing as always, Miss Hiro," Chadwick says, bowing his head respectfully. "If we had these suits during the Core invasion, perhaps we could have defeated the demons instead of suffering such a terrible loss."
Phoebe purses her lips. "Not necessarily. The Spectre suits sacrifice durability and defensive capacity in exchange for speed and stealth. Their offensive-power is also sub-par, making them only good for assassination and espionage. In a giant arena like the Core, Spectre pilots would have perished the fastest."
"Ah. I'll defer to your expert opinion, then," Chadwick mutters, slightly embarrassed.
Phoebe clears her throat. This time, when the last trooper shifts his appearance, looks of surprise appear on Chadwick, Corporal Hurent, and Samuel's faces.
"Hm?" Samuel says. "Isn't that...?"
"Yes," Phoebe replies. "It's the suit Neil wore during the Core invasion: The Thundercat Mark II."
The final trooper hologram changes to reveal a bright blue, red, and golden exosuit, one with a bulky golden gauntlet on its left wrist. Three Wolverine-like blades stick out of the gauntlet, suitable for ripping and tearing, while the trooper also sports a vicious-looking nanosword in his right hand.
"Another Mark II," Chadwick marvels. "It's much flashier than the Mark I, particularly with its coloration. You must have given Neil one before the battle."
"His bodyguards too," Phoebe affirms. "Neil didn't get much time to learn its many functions, and sadly, neither will our troops. However, I'll tell you right now what to expect. The Transforming Exogauntlet on its left arm is a powerful utility item comparable to the Spectre's Needlers. It can become a hammer, a blade, a shield, or anything you need for the situation at hand. Merely describe a shape, and Centurion will attempt to replicate it."
Phoebe gestures toward the holographic trooper's right hand. "This nanosword is equally dangerous. When combined with the Thundercat's reinforced defensive capabilities, it will allow its pilot to fight on the front lines alongside our Rhino-wearing troopers. Since the Thundercat Mark II is a modification of the Mark I, we already have several thousand of them available, along with the new Spectres. I advise you to quickly debrief your troops about the additional functions of these new exosuits, as we won't have much time to train them in their various intricacies once the demons invade."
After taking a long, deep breath, Phoebe exhales.
"Alright. Let's wrap this up. Any questions?"
Chadwick runs his fingers through his beard. "Do you have anywhere you'd like to station us?"
"Ah! I almost forgot. Thank you for reminding me."
Phoebe re-engages the topographical map and points toward the southern side of Hero City.
"Over here, this area is part of the southern prison complex, where I've created a specialized Demon Containment Facility. We must ensure the demons don't locate Beelzebub and Artorias. Keep them locked up at all costs. Corporal Hurent, I'm putting you in charge of defending the prison."
The Corporal nods. "Yes, Commander. I'm already familiar with their layout, as I took our prisoners there earlier."
"Good. I'll need you to pull double-duty keeping an eye on Hero City's eastern flank, too. The south and east sides are among our most vulnerable, so if the demons break containment from the warp-gate, I want to know at once if they reach our flanks."
Phoebe turns her attention toward the others. "Princess Brunhilda. As stated before, you're in charge of protecting the King Cannons and their supply line. Samuel, you're in charge of guarding the southern and western side of the warp-gate encampment. Chadwick, I want you on command duty for the vast majority of our main forces, particularly between Hero City and the encampment. However, Elder Skarde, you may have the most complex job of all."
Elder Skarde frowns. "In what way?"
"You'll be our final defensive line. You will protect Hero City, especially the north side's Covenant ships. You must ensure Burrowers don't make it past our defensive lines, and that any Warpers get taken out before they can circle around to our flanks."
"I will do my best," Skarde replies.
Blinker hops off Phoebe's shoulder and flies around excitedly. "Ooh, ooh, what about me? What do I get to do?"
Phoebe smiles. "Are you fully healed?"
"Yeppers! Samantha got me all fixed up! Kar's still healing, though. I dunno when he'll be ready to return."
Phoebe's smile deepens. The memory of what Blinker told her before the debriefing, regarding Daisy, leaves butterflies in her stomach. However, for some reason, she keeps her mouth shut and doesn't mention it in front the other leaders.
"That's good. I'm glad we have Samantha
at times like this. Well, even if Kar isn't back, I hope we can rely on you for support against the demons wherever they appear."
"Duh!" Blinker giggles. "I'll smush 'em flat! Those big red dummies won't know what hit 'em!"
Phoebe pokes Blinker's stomach playfully. Just watch yourself out there. If anything happened to you, it would devastate Kar."
Blinker rolls her eyes. "Psh. Don't you know who I am? I'm the Monster Queen. I'm strong as heck!"
Despite the fairy's tough words, Phoebe's eyes grow distant. "Yeah. But... be careful. Kar already lost one wife. I don't want to imagine what losing a second would do to him. I'd never forgive myself if something happened to you."
With one last, heavy sigh, Phoebe turns to the assembled leaders. "Alright, dismissed. Get out there and make Neil proud. If he's still alive, we'll mount a rescue operation once we survive this war."
Chadwick rises off his rock and raises an eyebrow. "You suddenly sound more confident than before."
Phoebe nods. "Neil always says a leader must look strong for his troops. I can only hope to live up to that ideal."
"As can we all. Words to live by," Chadwick mutters. With a nod of the head, he turns to leave. "I'll see you on the battlefield, Commander Hiro."
"Likewise," Phoebe replies.
The waning sun begins to fade behind clouds to the west, setting on the world of Tarus II and bringing the cover of darkness. As the humans disperse, with Blinker riding on Phoebe's shoulder, they all gaze at the setting sun with wistful eyes.
....................................... Artwork time! Basic T-REX. Clinician T-REX. Hummer T-REX. Rhino T-REX. Spectre T-REX. Thundercat T-REX This is Brunhilda!
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