Location: CWS Argo, System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Status on the asteroid, XO?” Ben asked LT Briggs. He was splitting his attention between the operation on the hunk of rock and the data streaming in from his ship’s sensors.
“Sir, Sergeant O’Neil reports twenty percent of the station is cleared.” The XO replied briskly.
“Twenty percent?” That tore Ben’s attention away from the holo-tank at the center of the bridge. “They’ve been at it for hours.”
“There has been one major counterattack by the enemy, Sir. The defensive positions erected by PFC Cooper were paramount in the battle, but we had three WIA, and it took some time to regroup and transport fresh troops. Now that the entire infantry contingent is onboard the asteroid, Sergeant O’Neil believes it will only take another two hours to clear it without any major setbacks.”
Ben bit the inside of his cheek before retorting. If Cobalt Station had shown him anything it was his lack of aptitude with infantry tactics. He needed to trust SGT O’Neil and Cooper to get the job done.
<It still does not make this any easier.> His mission was to secure the asteroid, but the real issue where the half-dozen signatures fleeing the scene of the crime.
More than twenty vessels had used the dirty thermonuclear explosion as a cover to retreat and avoid Argo. Of those twenty, fourteen had already reached the FTL limit and jumped away under their Alcubierre Drives. Ben had already put out the word with one of his FTL-capable drones that there were pirate vessels in the area, and with any luck one of the other patrolling gunboats or lighter warships would come across the fleeing criminals.
Six still remained in system, and he didn’t know if they were waiting to see how the battle on the asteroid played out, or if they had just been late getting the hell out of there. Argo’s two remaining drones had increased his sensor range – since the half-dozen ships were way farther than one light minute away – and were cataloging everything about the ships and trying to match them to anything in the database.
The signature an engine gave off was unique, but it could be changed with enough modification, and enough cash. After getting no hits on the first pass through Argo’s neural database, Ben had Geoffrey, the Semi-Intelligent Ship’s Interface, broaden the range and run anything within an eighty percent probability.
“Sir, we’ve got something.” The XO looked up from her station and there was something in her eyes. It looked like triumph with a hint of fear.
“Put it on my display.” Ben looked closely as the data populated and pulled out the important bits.
“We missed it during the first pass because of this,” the XO highlighted some of the exotic particles coming off the engine. “Those only occur with these parts,” a list of engine parts started streaming down the side of the holo-tank, and they all had one thing in common.
“Blockie parts,” Ben practically growled out the words. “It is the New Day.”
“It’s confirmed at eighty-nine percent accuracy, Sir.” The XO and CO watched as the dot on the holo-tank drifted further and further away by the second.
“Put the nearest drone on them,” Ben commanded as he plopped back down in his command chair. He didn’t realize he’d been gripping the armrest, and it was partially warped under his powerful squeeze. “I want to know everything they are doing until the moment they jump into Alcubierre, and then I want a best guess on where the hell they are going.”
It was very difficult to get a distance and direction of a ship traveling through Alcubierre just by investigating their jump point, but it was worth a shot, and as far as Ben was concerned this fell well within the purview of his mission. New Day – or whatever name she was registered under– had facilitated the death of Commonwealth soldiers and spacers, kidnapped him, and ultimately resulted in the destruction of Cobalt Station and everyone aboard.
<So what is he doing here?>
The smart move would be to get the hell out of dodge and not come back in this decade, and by the look of the Blockie parts in his engines he’d partially done that, but why didn’t he stay away? In Ben’s experience there were two primary reasons people did stupid things. The first was love, and after seeing the pirate captain at work, Ben doubted the man could love anything. His little rebellion on Cobalt Station had ultimately killed hundreds of people. He’d ordered Ben beaten by his second in command, and he’d never blinked at any of the violence. These were not the actions of a man driven by love – except maybe narcissism – but that had a component of self-preservation that didn’t fit here.
The second, and more likely reason, was greed. That fit the pirate’s moral compass. Ben bet that someone had screwed the pirate captain over, stolen from him, or done something else that infringed on what the man believed he deserved. Revenge was a better motivator than love for the men in the ship millions of kilometers from Argo.
<I can kill two birds with one stone.> Ben thought as he studied New Day – now registered as Summer Solstice – and took in everything he could about her.
He was going to find the man who’d beaten his face to a pulp and stabbed a marine right in front of him, and then he was going to find the criminal who’d screwed him over. He was going to pull on that string until the entire criminal conspiracy, whatever it was, came tumbling down. That was the type of thing that would get him a positive performance review, and the type of thing that would help him sleep better at night. In what little way possible, Ben was trying to pay back what the marines had sacrificed to save him.
“Drones repositioning, Sir,” the XO informed. “ETA thirty-eight minutes.”
“Good work.” His eyes were glued to the holo-tank. “Good work everyone.”
Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast…slow is smooth and smooth is fast…”
“Will you shut the fuck up,” Coop snapped at the PFC muttering behind him as the squad advanced down the hallway in the belly of the asteroid. “That shit doesn’t make any sense.”
As the most heavily armored of the soldiers on the rock, Coop was the logical pick to take point. SGT O’Neil was in the middle of the formation, and the other eight soldiers of the squad were spread throughout the hallway. There was a solid ten meter spacing between their two staggered lines. It was enough room that a grenade or other improvised explosive device going off wouldn’t kill more than one of them. They’d learned that lesson the hard way. They’d had two marines seriously wounded when they were bunched up and tripped a sensor that turned the hallway into a high-velocity shrapnel game of pinball.
The other PFC was mumbling the mantra because the SGT wanted them to take their time clearing the rock. After the local’s counterattack killed off half their people, they’d fallen back to dirty tricks and booby-traps. They were desperate tactics that were only delaying the inevitable, but if the bad guys knew they were going to lose then they were going to make the marines pay the price for the W.
Coop’s HUD cycled through different visuals: thermal, millimeter-wave, and the good old-fashioned eyeball magnified if necessary. It was giving the HI trooper a headache, but the bad guys were innovative in their IEDs.
His first clue that something was off was that something just didn’t look right. It wasn’t anything but a hunch, but he’d learned to trust his hunches. He held up his fist and the whole formation froze. They were in the open, in a hallway, and vulnerable, but it was better to be static for a few seconds than walk into another kill zone. Coop cycled through his HUD’s visual settings slowly to take a better look at what he was seeing. Nothing was coming up, but his gut was telling him something was off. One side of the hallway just seemed different than the other, and since these places were built on uniformity that was a red flag.
“What do you have, Cooper?” SGT O’Neil had walked up to join him and was speaking through his suit’s audio feature.
It was best to keep the burst transmissions to a minimum when dealing with an IED that might be set to explode at any random radio burst. It was a sloppy way to detonate, but a little luck and the sloppiness would work to the bad guy’s advantage.
“My sensors are showing jack, but look over there.” He pointed with his finger. “See that.”
The SGT was silent for a second. “Yeah…Yeah I do.” They both stood there for another few seconds before the SGT made his decision. “Demo on me. We’ve got something twenty-five meters up on the left side of the hallway. Squad, move back and take up defensive positions.”
Demo was a CPL who Coop thought was pretty hot, but was also sure was more interested in blowing things up than blowing guys. Plus, he had Lee, and that was about as much as he could handle right now.
“On it, Sergeant.” The CPL moved forward cautiously while Coop moved back and took a knee. His leg was throbbing from all the activity over the last few hours, and a ricochet off his knee during the counterattack hadn’t done him any favors.
Ten minutes later they got the all clear from the CPL and moved forward. The CPL was busy stowing the block of plastic explosive that had been hidden under camo-nets. The block of gray matter must have weighed half a kilo. That was enough boom boom to fuck up some people.
“Sergeant, where the hell did they get camo-nets?” This was the second time Coop had seen military-grade supplies in the hands of pirates, and it was making him reconsider his life choices.
Camo-nets were the ultimate in cover and concealment technology. They defeated a lot of the standard sensors built into armor, which was why Coop’s LACS hadn’t picked it up. They were even supposed to be invisible to the naked eye, but “supposed” was the key word there. A keen observer – like an HI trooper with enhanced eye-sight – could catch the slight distortion when the camo-net had to stretch or condense the scenery to hide whatever it was covering. The slight drawback of the netting was to get the full effect it needed to be the correct size. You couldn’t cut it without compromising its integrity, and from what Coop had seen the bad guys had a piece too big covering the explosives, which made the hallway look off on that one side.
“I’ve asked the Skipper to look into it, but we aren’t going to figure it out while we’re on this rock, so keep your head in the game, Cooper.” The SGT pointed down the hallway for Coop to take point again and press on.
<Someone needs to figure this shit out.> Coop grumbled to himself as the squad continued with their mission to find and destroy the enemy.