Two Worlds – Chapter 176

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Abraham Lincoln, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Holy shit! I can’t believe this is happening.” Coop was practically bouncing up and down in his LACS armor.

“I know, right?” Mike stood next to Coop in formation.

They were standing on the flight deck of the assault carrier, which was nearly barren for the occasion, and it was one hell of a special occasion.

Coop still marveled at how fast the ship’s crew had gotten everything ready. He could feel the ceremonial atmosphere in the air. Normally, the flight deck of the three-kilometer carrier would be crammed with Spyders, their crews, supplies, and have a healthy amount of grease and sweat permeating everything. In the last two hours, the CAG had scrambled all of the aircraft in the carrier and transferred them to other ships, or put them on the ground. Only four remained.

“You could see Uranus with the shine coming off that thing.” Coop joked as he used the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree sensors in his helmet to watch the immaculate Spyders’ crews spraying some nanite-based polish on their birds, and frantically scrubbing the hulls under the watchful eye of a Chief. Based on the man’s constant yelling at the spacers, his attention to detail was extreme.

In front of the four Spyders, which were lined up wingtip to wingtip, stood two companies of marines at parade rest. One company had their CMUs on their dress settings, but they were still armed. The M3s were sitting with their butts on the ground, on its owner’s right-hand side, and extended out so the soldier’s arm was straight. The soldier’s left arm was behind their back and held firm against their lower spine. Coop hadn’t seen rifle drill without armor since Basic, and he thought the shit was pretty pointless.

NCOs were walking down the lines and correcting any deficiencies. The NCOs of the second company had already done their inspection. The second company was in perfectly polished Dragonscale armor. Their scales gleamed in the overhead lighting, and they each had their M3s angled across their chest with their muzzles down. The two companies were a powerful sight. Two hundred enlisted, NCOs, and officers dressed to impress with their Spyders standing guard behind them. Coop could see that pilots were sitting in those cockpits with their full flight gear. They weren’t meant to be seen, but their purpose was clear. Everyone might be dressed up all fancy, but Coop saw magazines in those M3s, and he was willing to bet a month’s pay that the cannons on those Spyders were ready to fire.

The HI contingent was no exception. They were loaded for war. Coop had a standard combat load of 125mm artillery shells. His Buss was loaded with lethal rounds, none of the non-lethal crap, and he had a full complement of extra magazines. His shoulder missile launcher was topped off, and his rail gun had been filled to just short of bursting.

<It’s tough to tell if this is a ceremony or planetary invasion prep,> he thought.

“Scrub a little lower, sweetheart,” Coop toggled the switch to communicate privately with the spacer currently giving his armor the same rub down as the spacers on the Spyders.

She didn’t respond, but she flipped him the bird with her hand holding the aerosolized spray can that contained the polish. Mike saw the gesture and laughed, and the spacer moved on with her polishing and specifically avoided the crotch area.

“Don’t ruin the moment, Coop. This is history.” Mike was right about that.

For the first time in human history, mankind was making contact with a legitimate alien. These weren’t the Arachnids on Arachna, or single cell organisms like the ones found on Saturn’s moon, Europa. This was a legit, starfarring alien race.

The ship that had come through the Launcher had nearly made Space Traffic Control shit itself, and Coop could see why. The ship had settled into position a million kilometers from New Lancashire. It was still well within weapon’s range, but the alien craft hadn’t made any attempt to engage. It just sat there. The word on the grape vine spreading through the ship faster than light was that the aliens were in contact with Admiral Nelson, and this pomp and circumstance seemed to confirm that.

<There no other reason a dozen HI, two companies of jarheads, and their birds would be sitting on an empty flight deck surrounding nothing but a large wooden table.> Coop’s sensors even told him it was real Redwood from Earth. <Fancy.>

At the table sat the Rear Admiral. He looked calm and composed, but Coop was pretty sure the old guy had to be having mild indigestion at a minimum.

“Fucking ET in the flesh is going to be walking through that door any minute now,” Coop relayed to Mike.

“Do you think he’ll look like us?” Mike asked.

“You mean a picture of masculine virility,” Coop shot back.

“No, a big dumb ape who keeps asking the polish girl to give him a handy in front of the senior military commander of the whole damn sector.” Mike shut him down hard and fast. “I’m wondering if it’s going to look human at all.”

“Hmmm.” Coop didn’t have a good comeback or answer to that, so he just grumbled and turned his attention back to the alien vessel.

It was definitely alien.

Abraham Lincoln was the biggest Commonwealth warship in York Sector. It was three kilometers long, had armor five meters thick, boasted thirty-five energy cannons – five of which were in the ten petawatt range, and two-hundred missile tubes. It was a beast, and could put a lot of firepower on target.

If the alien ship was a target, then it was the biggest damn target Coop had ever seen. The thing was ginormous. It was in a roughly crescent moon shape, but unlike the clean, metallic geometry of a human warship, the alien ship looked sloppy. It jutted out in places, was indented in others, and didn’t look metal at all. In fact, the hull of the alien vessel was shit brown in color. It was almost laughable, until you realized you could fit over six Abraham Lincolns between the two end points of its crescent moon shape. Coop’s HUD measured the ship nineteen point seven kilometers from tip to tip, and a third of that in width. The ass side of the ship started off thick and tapered down to a four-hundred-meter-wide point. That still made it thicker than a destroyer at it smallest point.

<That’s one hell of a boat.>

Abe had its gunboats out and collecting data on the ship, but Coop didn’t have access to that; even in his position as special protector to the RADM. That was the HI’s job in all of this. They were getting all pretty to look good for the alien ambassador that was going to arrive, but their mission was to protect the RADM. If shit went sideways on this first contact, which over fifty percent of the holo-movies said it would, Coop’s job was to kill ET and protect the boss.

“We have a craft incoming, places everyone.” The RADM announced, and the crews polishing everything made a beeline for the exit.

Coop’s polish girl hesitated just a second to wipe down his crotch area quickly. She’d made a point of avoiding it earlier after his comment, but she didn’t want to get chewed out when one of her assigned HI suits had a dirty crotch. She made it quick and joined her fellow spacers in disappearing from the flight deck.

“You all know the battle plan,” the MSG in charge of the dozen HI troopers relayed. “Two grab the Rear Admiral, two will be human shields, four advance and go blades hot, and four engage from a distance while covering the Admiral’s escape.”

Coop was one of the HI assigned to go blades hot.

It would be definite overkill against a human opponent, but they had no idea what the alien’s capabilities were. All they knew was they were capable of FTL travel and their ships were big as hell.

“Craft preparing to dock.” The next step of the phase began.

“Company…atten-hut!” The two units behind the HI and RADM snapped to the position of attention. Their job in the worst-case scenario was to encircle the enemy and take over if the HI failed. Of course, if a dozen HI failed then puny M3s weren’t going to do shit. The Spyders were the ‘break in case of emergency’ option. They were just supposed to open fire on the ET if all else failed.

While the grunts got squared away, Coop used his HI access to tap into the external cameras and watch the alien craft approach. It looked vaguely like a bulbous tear drop. He upped the magnification and saw that unlike the smooth hull of a human ship, the alien’s had more in common with sandpaper, and as it approached the docking port it…rippled.

<What the hell?> The craft’s front part seemed to open up like a giant maw before clamping down around the port. Coop expected to hear warning klaxons, but nothing rang out.

“Visitors docked. Disembarking and heading our way.” It was the nearest docking port to the flight deck, so it didn’t take long for the aliens to appear.

It only made Coop more confused. “Ugh, it looks disgusting.”

The alien was large, easily three meters tall, but it was stooped. To Coop it didn’t look like any animal he’d ever seen. In fact, it looked more like a gnarled old tree than an animal. Its skin – or bark – was bone white, but sections looked like they’d crumbled or fallen off over time. In place of the white material was something black, slick, and wiggling. If Coop had to put his finger on it he’d say they were worms. Thousands and thousands of thin, black worms that looked somewhat muscular if he zoomed in.

The alien didn’t look too disgusting until Coop caught sight of its back. Thin brown cilia the same color as the ship’s hull, covered the back side of the alien. It had no discernable face, ears, eyes or nose. Coop had no idea how it perceived the world around it, or communicated. Then he looked down and saw that the alien wasn’t even walking on the floor. It was hovering about half a meter off the ground.

<What the…> Coop looked closely under magnification, and it seemed like the space around the alien was slightly warped. Not enough to be perceived under the naked eye, but it was visible when Coop looked closer.

“You see that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Mike was transfixed on the alien too, as was just about everyone on the flight deck. “What do you think?”

Coop was about to answer when two black objects moved around to either side of the alien. These looked something similar to what Coop expected of a technically advanced race. They were onyx black, seamless spheres, twice the size of a basketball, that hovered about a meter in a half off the ground, so about waist height if the alien even had a waist. Coop got the sense he was being watched by those spheres even though he couldn’t see anything but smooth black.

“Cooper, Enders, if things get FUBAR you take the sphere on the right.” The MSG assigned Coop and Mike to go blades hot against the unknown piece of tech.

That gave Coop a bad feeling. Attacking something you didn’t understand was the quickest way to get dead in this line of work, but orders were orders. Coop watched their assigned sphere very closely while the RADM got to his feet.

“Welcome to my ship, honored guest. My name is Rear Admiral Hank Nelson, and I am the senior representative of my government in this sector of space.” It was clear from the way the RADM spoke that he expected the alien to understand what he was saying. That confirmed that they’d been talking before, and everyone seemed to hold their breath waiting for the response. Coop knew he was.

“Salutations, Nelson. My research on your species indicates military males commonly refer to each other by their last name or rank. Would you like me to address you as Nelson or Rear Admiral? My sensibilities are not affected either way.” The voice that replied was computerized and obviously from some sort of translator device.

<Research?> Coop’s paranoia kicked into high gear. If this hovering tree-worm was doing “research” what did that entail?<Probing…?>

“Rear Admiral is acceptable.” Nelson replied back. “Please have a seat.”

“I cannot sit, Rear Admiral. My species does not have a vertebral column like Homo Sapiens, but my research indicates your statement to ‘take a seat’ is an offer to put me at ease and begin negotiations.” Instead of sitting the alien hovered over until it idled on the opposite side of the wooden table. “Very well, Rear Admiral, I am seated and ready to begin.”

“Thank you.” Judging by the look on his face, the RADM was finding this thing’s methods of communication just as confusing as Coop was. “How should I address you?”

“My species does not have names. We identify ourselves through physical markings and communicate through sounds waves generated by impacting parts of our anatomy against each other. My research indicates that nothing Homo-Sapiens do parallels this, but for this interaction I have adopted the human name, Bob.”

“Bob?”

“Is Bob not accurate? We strive to be precise in our research prior to interaction with new species, but every sentient lifeform has ingrained cultural peculiarities, and margins of error do occur.”

Coop felt a shiver pass up his spine. It was weird to be reliant completely on verbal communication from something that didn’t even remotely look human. Coop didn’t realize until now how big non-verbal signals were to speaking with someone.

“Bob is fine.” The RADM clearly wanted to move on. “Welcome to the United Commonwealth of Colonies, Bob. We are honored to have you among us, and desire peaceful and prosperous relations between our two species.” It sounded like the RADM was reading from some kind of script.

“I am most pleased to be in your Commonwealth, and I wish nothing but a prosperous relationship between the human species and myself.”

Coop felt a collective sigh of relief pass over the gathered soldiers. <But…> Even though the thing was speaking over a translator, Coop just felt there was more coming.

“However, pursuant to Clause D of the Compact of the Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings, I cannot speak on behalf of the other member races.”

“Ah shit.” Mike cursed.

“And there’s the kicker.” Coop knew it all felt too easy.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 175

Eve Berg

Location: Yangon-2, Yangon System, Eastern Block

“On three.” Both Rangers watched their HUD’s closely as the tank continued to hover slowly across the inside of the PDC. Eve reached into one of her LACS’ armored pockets and grabbed a demo charge while SGT Sullivan counted down. “Three…two…one.”

In unison, they dropped from the bottom of the tank. Eve made sure to affix the shape charge explosive to the lightly armored belly of the mechanical death machine before dropping. They hit the ground hard, but wasted no time in rolling out from underneath the tank. They’d timed the drop so they’d be right next to cover and concealment.

Their polychromatic armor rippled unnaturally as they rolled on the ground. The rain was lighter inside the PDC. Whatever the Blockies had the shield dialed to, it was only letting in some of the downpour. An explosion on the far side of the base at just the right moment helped redirect any eyes in their vicinity, so the two Rangers made it safely behind cover. Eve quickly bought her Buss up into a ready position and covered one hundred and eighty degrees while the SGT handled the other half of the perimeter. They sat there for a few seconds just to make sure no one had noticed them.

“Clear.”

“Clear.” They came to the same conclusion.

The SGT reached into his own armored pouch and pulled out a black speck. He stuck it to the side of the cargo container they were using as cover where it looked like just another small scorch mark on a well-travelled crate. The SGT worked his HUD, and Eve saw the small camera’s feed pop into view.

“Good copy.” She sent back to the SGT. The camera would cover their six as they moved out, so no one shot them in the ass.

The two Rangers were well and truly behind enemy lines and they had a critical job to do. They moved slowly and cautiously toward the rally point two hundred meters away. They could have run that distance in a straight line in a few seconds, but it took them the better part of ten minutes to weave between patrols, three more tanks that were getting prepped by their crews for the coming attack, and plant more cameras to give the rest of the SPECOPS team in the PDC the best information possible to complete their mission.

When they finally came in close sensor range of the rest of the team a small perimeter of blue icons populated on STRATNET.

“Vixen plus one coming in at your nine o’clock.” She sent the message as they approached. The last thing she wanted to happen was getting shot by her own teammates.

Even with her V3 LACS’ sensors it was hard to see the perimeter guards. Their polychromatic camouflage made them one with the crate they were using for cover. All she got was two affirmative toggles as they passed through the perimeter.

The rally point was in the center of a large storage area. Long metal crates were stacked two or three high, so they nearly reached the height of the wall. They were well away from the front lines, so it kept them relatively safe from shelling, but eventually the brigade cannon cockers would get a bead on this place and try to turn it into slag, but for the moment it served the team’s purposes.

“Berg, Sullivan,” the SGM greeted them. He was at the center of a crate they’d forced open. Somewhat fresh fruit was stacked all around them as they consulted a small node they’d brought along for the operation.

The SGT must have passed over his cameras’ data because it popped up on the node’s receivers to show the chunk of real estate Eve had just come through.

“Good work,” the SGM transmitted. “I want you two to grab a quick bite, and then you’re on the perimeter in five. WARNO in fifteen and we move out in twenty.”

“Yes, Sergeant Major.” Eve was more than willing to take a short breather and sit on guard for a few minutes after riding in here on the belly of a tank. There had just been too much excitement over the last two days. Sometimes a girl needed a breather.

Eve used her HUD to get a high-calorie protein bar deposited next to her mouth. The automated process gave her the choice of vanilla or chocolate. Both tasted like ass, but the vanilla added a bit of zing to that ass, so she chose that option. She munched on that as she sat with her back against the container, and occasionally took some sips of water from her hydration bladder. She considered requesting a stim from her armor’s medical features to keep her alert for the next phase of the mission, but ultimately decided against it. Stims were logged by the armor and closely watched by the brass. They didn’t want anyone developing a habit. Also, stims had a side effect of wearing off at the worst possible time. Coming down from a stim rush in the middle of a battle was one of the worst things that could happen to a soldier, so Eve stayed away from the stuff whenever possible.

Instead, she closed her eyes for a five-minute cat nap. To anyone else it would have looked extremely weird to be closing your eyes and leaving yourself vulnerable while sitting in the middle of an enemy PDC, but Eve knew the value of sleep and to get it when she could.

It felt like she’d barely closed her eyes when the SGT shook her awake and they relieved a pair of Rangers on the perimeter. The soldiers they were relieving passed off their sectors of fire and did a data dump of their assigned terrain. The Ranger Eve was replacing had mapped the patrols and any deviations they’d taken since he took over his watch. It gave her something to study and pass the time while keeping an eye on things.

The Blockies were so busy preparing from Fourth Brigade’s next push that they didn’t have time to look in their supply crates for less than two dozen SPECOPS soldiers. Eve was fine with that. The last thing she wanted to do was get in a fire fight with a thousand times their number.

Ten minutes after assuming her position and reviewing what the previous Ranger had left her, Eve heard the SGM’s voice pop over the team net.

“Listen up.”

Eve minimized everything else on her HUD and paid close attention to what the SGM was sending her way.

“The WARNO is as follows. The situation hasn’t changed. The Blockies are holding the PDC and hamstringing our operations in this AO. Our mission is to soften up this target so Fourth Brigade can break through, secure the PDC, and open up follow on operations for this entire coast and continent. Execution is as follows.” The HUD displayed an outline of the PDC.

Eve could tell that at least half of it had been constructed based on what the teams had seen on their way to the rally point. The cameras planted were supplying real-time data for certain sections, so swarms of red icons were populated. Other sections were neutral gray. They were big unknown areas that wouldn’t populate data until a soldier actually saw something.

“We’re going to split up into four teams. Team one will make for the shield generator. If we bring that down that’s game set match.” Eve liked the sound of that, but the SGM wouldn’t put all his eggs in that basket. Taking out the most closely guarded thing in the PDC with half a dozen guys wasn’t likely to succeed. “Team two will head here.” An icon appeared on the HUD. “This is the expected logistical supply point. We’re talking ammo, weapons, shells, replacement parts, or anything they need to sustain the war effort. Team two will cripple that resupply ability. Team three, your job is to fuck with their rear. I want IEDs on their routes to the front. I want heavy weapons tagged so they can’t tear Fourth Brigade a new asshole when they finally breakthrough. Eve and Sullivan already tagged one of those tanks. Make sure the rest of them are dealt with. We don’t need that mobile firepower floating around when we can’t take them out with air support.”

Eve smiled at the honorable mention. She’d already done part of Team Three’s job for them. If nothing else, that earned her a beer when this was all over.

“Team Four, your job is to make sure the Blockies can’t reinforce, because they’re going to have a manpower surplus. Lucky for us, most of those troops are going to be in the shelters underground waiting for orders. I need Team Four to destroy those entrances and exits. Bury them under tons of rubble. If we’re able to keep them penned in, Fourth Brigade will just need to sit on those positions when they take the PDC and keep them pinned. That will take minimal troop allocation. Make the planet do the work for us.”

Eve nodded as she identified several entrances and exits on the HUD already. She just hoped they mirrored everything on the side they had no data on.

“No other changes to service and supply and command and control. Just don’t start lobbing antimatter shells and killing everyone. Command wants to pin them in their holes and keep them there while we fuck shit up all over this planet. The objectives are infrastructure and military, we’re not going to butcher millions of civilians.”

Everyone in the group nods their heads. They didn’t sign up to kill innocents. They signed up to kill the enemy.

“Teams are as follows.”

Eve was assigned to Team Two. The SGM was on Team One. <Of course he gave himself the hardest assignment.> She shook her head and reported to her team leader. It was one of the SEALS, which made sense because they were going to potentially be blowing up a lot of ordinance.

SGT Sullivan was also assigned to the team, so they reconfigured the perimeter once the SGM was done with the WARNO, and got with the other few guys who were on the team. They had a few minutes to plan their movement. Team Two had the easiest movement aside from Team Four. Teams One and Three were heading into the most heavily guarded and populated areas. The logistical point was on the unknown side of the PDC, so that was a pain, but for the most part troops only came from the front for resupply and then returned to the front, which left the rear relatively open. Or at least that’s what the team hoped.

Once the SEAL toggled Team Two’s readiness, the teams moved out one at a time in their assigned order. They split in different directions upon exiting the rally point and snuck their way toward their objectives.

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Bonus Chapter – Two Worlds – Chapter 174

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Argo, Hahn System, Eastern Block of Nations

“Shit.” LT Briggs exhaled slowly as her eyes darted between the holo-tank in the center of the bridge and her work station. She wasn’t the only one.

Nearly half an hour had passed since the Stark Kingdom of Windsor’s cruiser Benjamin Disraeli opened fire on the Commonwealth task force it had been a part of. In the first couple of minutes of battle it had taken out the only battleship in the system, Lancelot, a battlecruiser, and the missile cruiser Deluge. The task force flagship, Andromeda, was damaged severely, but CAPT Jacobson kept on fighting.

To split the cruiser’s fire, and engage from multiple vectors, the task force’s five remaining ships paired up into two groups of two and scattered. Andromeda did her best to limp away, but Disraeli continued to close on her. It was a short game of cat and mouse. Some brilliant evasive maneuvers had kept the battlecruiser from being blown to pieces by the powerful energy blasts of Disraeli’s main energy cannon, but Ben suspected they had reactor damage, and their speed was half power at best.

Without a clear shot with their cannon, Disraeli relied on her ninety missiles tubes. By some miracle, Andromeda, didn’t explode from the first salvo, but a second salvo, split between the flagship and one of the two groups, finally did the ship in. Andromeda exploded and created her own mini sun for a moment. Ben was forced to sit there and watch as the Captain who’d led several successful raids with a powerful task force was turned to star dust.

The two remaining pairs of Commonwealth ships swung wide and continued to attack, but Disraeli’s defensive measures were something Ben had never seen before. Powerful shields capable of withstanding full broadsides of missiles were backed up by point defense lasers that made anything in the Commonwealth’s arsenal hopelessly inferior. It was no wonder they lost.

Disraeli stayed on course for a least-time intercept with the Blockie forces heading their way, but continued to engage the nearest Commonwealth group. Ben sat stunned when one of its massive energy beams struck one battlecruiser aft and practically cut the engines right off the ship. The battlecruiser spun out of control and off into deep space without any power. Ben predicted that everyone on board that ship had died when the internal compensators failed, and they all got turned to mush.

By the time Disraeli exited the engagement envelope with the Commonwealth task force they’d lost four of their nine ships, and none except Argo were without some damage.

Ben had brief communications with the surviving captains and they were following CAPT Jacobson’s final orders just like he was: evade and return to New Lancashire so the sector would know their allies had betrayed them.

“Get drones two and three as close to the Blockies as possible.” Ben ordered as Argo continued to sprint toward the FTL limit.

The Blockie formation had sent a few missiles in Argo’s direction, but they were beyond the eight-million-kilometer range, and meant as a simple “get out” measure. Ben had no intent to remain in the system one second longer than he had to, but he wanted to see what happened next.

“Five million kilometers.” LT Briggs informed as Disraeli drew closer to the Blockies. “You think they’re talking?”

“Maybe some friendly banter back and forth?” SGT O’Neil was on the bridge now. His marines were good to go, but nobody was coming after Argo. Still, the marine SGT was the type of person who liked to be ready for anything.

“Holy shit!” The main cannon from Disraeli opened fire on the Blockies from three and a half million kilometers away. That was pretty far for energy weapons.

The warships evaded, but they were never the target. The beam hit the armored cone head of the mobile dockyard dead center, punched through it, traveled through it lengthwise, and came out its ass. A cascade of explosions ran down the cleanly bisected structure until the whole thing was engulfed in fire and nothing more than ever-expanding debris. The warships didn’t take kindly to that, and opened up on the cruiser with everything they had, but didn’t fare much better than the Commonwealth task force.

“We just lost drones two and three.” LT Briggs informed as either the Blockies or Star Kingdom took out the drones observing them.

“Did we get data on those energy blasts?” That was what he really wanted. A cruiser’s gun that could punch through six-meters of battleship armor or destroy a missile cruiser in one blast was something they needed as much data on as possible.

“Yeah,” Chief Yates was already analyzing. “It’s definitely in the petawatt range. That’s as much as I can give you now.

Ben pinched his eyes shut and tried to force down the feeling of dread in his gut. If a cruiser could hit as harder than a battleship, then he didn’t want to know how much wallop those dreadnaughts were packing.

“Two minutes to transition.” The LT announced, and the countdown clock started ticking on the side of the holo-tank.

Engineering engaged the Alcubierre Drive and made sure everything was nominal before sending back a green status to the bridge. All departments similarly checked in.

“Ship reports ready for Alcubierre transition, Sir.” The LT made the customary announcement even though Ben could see all the green lights on his command holo.

Ben made sure to double check everything before nodding back to the LT and giving them the go ahead for transition. “Start the countdown.”

“What I don’t get is why the Kingdom is taking on both us and the Blockies. I get a double cross, but now they’re on everyone’s shit list.”

“That’s simple.” Ben’s eyes were assessing the latest damage estimates from the Blockies getting pounded fifteen million kilometers behind them. “They’re killing two birds with one stone. They’ve decimated the offensive units of our Fleet in York Sector. Now, we only have enough to garrison the settled colonies and do occasional commerce patrols. They’ve also crippled the Blockies offensive firepower. Taking out that mobile dockyard accomplished our original mission. They played us, and now they’re going to have freedom of movement throughout the sector while we have to hunker down and defend our colonies and merchant lanes. It’s actually brilliant.” Ben didn’t like thinking that about people who’d just kicked his team’s ass.

Thirty seconds later, Argo accelerated out of the Hahn System faster than the speed of light. It left behind three battlecruisers still scrambling to escape, a Blockie force that was getting decimated, a cruiser that had taken a giant leap forward in war-fighting technology, and thousands of dead spacers and marines from warships that had either been blown apart or were floating graveyards in space.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Everything looks good.” Coop waved the sniffer over a few more things as he walked back out of the cargo hold of a large hauler.

There was only one item inside the hull of the large ship. A sizable construction fabricator was being shipped down by some faber company he’d never heard of. Raw materials would be fed into the mouth of the mechanical behemoth and out would pop items that Town Center needed to expand and continue their colonization of New Lancashire.

<This thing could shit out a good ‘burber sized house.> Coop thought as he walked past the gaping exit maw on his way down the ramp.

The ship was not one of the vessels on Coop’s special list. He had one ship come through and pay his toll, but it was a small ship, and their tribute was only five hundred. That made today a slow day, but every cent he made was a cent he could put toward something bigger. He was collecting a nice little nest egg.

His good mood was permanently ruined by a loud wailing sound that rolled across the entire city. It started low, and then over a few seconds grew progressively louder until its pitch pummeled his eardrums. It repeated like that over and over again. People all across the spaceport were already running around like chickens with their heads cut off, and the blaring announcement wasn’t helping.

“All military personnel, report to your assigned staging areas. All civilian personnel, please report to the nearest shelter. The Planetary Defense Center is now at Defense Condition One. This is not a drill.”

“Corporal?” PFC Nickelbaucher sprinted across the tarmac as Coop toggled through his sensor options.

Sure as shit, his HUD showed the PDC’s shield had been raised. “You heard the announcement. Back to the base!”

The spaceport wasn’t sheltered underneath the coverage of the invisible energy dome, and even once they got under that dome Coop didn’t have a lot of faith in it. Since New Lancashire was a new colony, and Town Center wasn’t a large city, the planet’s PDC was equipped with a vulnerable Class One shield. On the plus side, it reached all the way to the ground, but on the down side, it was able to do that because it didn’t offer nearly as much protection as was necessary to ride out a large-scale assault.

Coop couldn’t think of what else this could be. The Blockies were finally tired of getting kicked in the nuts, and they were coming to finally settle the score.

The streets of Town Center were chaos. People were scrambling everywhere to get where they needed to go. The MP’s and a few squads were waving people through the gates of the military base and funneling people to the PDC’s shelter, but they looked harried and overworked. They were supposed to be checking people for weapons and scanning GIC’s to confirm identities. Instead, it looked like they had their hands full ensuring no one trampled anyone else to death.

“Go right in.” The MP LT who’d sat at Coop’s tribunal was in command, and he didn’t even look up. He just caught the shadow of a large LACS and waved Coop through.

Coop’s team was formed up around him, and their armor and weapons created a small bubble that the nervous civilians avoided. Once through the gate, Coop peeled off to the side and headed toward Charlie Company’s assembly area.

The rest of the Company was rushing into the dusty square behind the Company building. Many were still pulling on armor with their weapons slung across their back or gripped precariously under their armpits. The squad leaders were laying into those soldiers and spurring them forward with unveiled threats about what the Blockies were going to do to them if their shit wasn’t squared away.

“Cooper.” SSG Hightower’s voice cracked over the audio in Coop’s LACS. “Get your team into formation.”

Coop didn’t waste oxygen and just clicked back an affirmative response. As a specialty team, they didn’t stand in the large formation. They made their own formation to the left, with Coop in the squad leader position. Since they’d been working for the last few hours in armor, while the rest of the Company had been doing whatever else was on the training calendar, they looked ready to go while everyone else was still fumbling with their gear and getting into a straight line. Coop savored the moment and made sure that LT Wentworth, who was at the rear of the main Company formation, saw that his team was ready to go.

“Your nose is so deep in her asshole you’ve got a brown smear,” the SSG snapped back when Coop continued to ping the LT with his team’s readiness. “Just stand there until I tell you otherwise.”

“Roger that, Staff Sergeant.” Coop couldn’t hide the smugness in his voice. For once, he wasn’t the one unprepared.

Charlie Company was just one of the units forming up in the immediate vicinity. Coop saw puffs of dust as hundreds of other soldiers trampled the ground in their own assembly areas. Town Center didn’t have a large garrison, but everyone they did have was getting ready for imminent invasion.

Coop monitored his team and company nets. If shit really went down, he’d be given access to the Battalion net to arrange for fire missions outside his Company, but whoever made that decision hadn’t gotten that far in the prep yet.

Everyone else was facing forward while the NCOs did a quick inspection of their gear, but Coop knew where to focus to figure out what was going on. When the LT’s head cocked to the side and she turned around, that was the nonverbal sign the Coop needed to know something was about to go down. The only question was what?

“Cooper!” The LT’s voice announced on a private channel. “Report back to the spaceport immediately.”

“Come on guys, back to the spaceport,” Coop ordered.

The team didn’t make it more than a few meters before the LT cut them off. “Only you, Cooper. The rest of your team will fall in with the rest of the Company.”

<I don’t know if I like the sound of that.> Some of his team might be a pain in the ass, but Coop had gotten used to them. It always paid to have someone he could order to do the shit work.

Still, an order was an order, so he jogged off toward the collection of landing pads was a solid pace. He wasn’t the only one. Several other soldiers in LACS armor were in front or behind him, and they were all heading to the same spot. That ended up being a Spyder with its engines running hot and a crew chief waving frantically for them to get onboard. A stampede of metal boots clanged up the ramp as HI infantry got onboard and strapped in. There weren’t any charging racks, so they settled for the five-point harnesses, which they ended up stretching to their maximum.

“Coop!”

“Mike!” Coop didn’t even recognize the man in the V2 armor next to him. “How’s it hanging?”

“Long and to the left.” The larger HI trooper clapped Coop on his metal shoulder. “Know what this is about?”

“No one tells me shit.” Coop smiled back. “But I’m pretty sure everyone thinks the Blockies are invading.”

“Sit down, buckle in, shut up, and listen.” A voice Coop had only heard a few times before during All Hands messages onboard Abraham Lincoln shut down any side conversations. “This is Rear Admiral Nelson, and I’ll tell you what’s really happening.”

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PCS to Eden – Recovery

“Look into the light.”

<Light…dark…all I remember is cold nothingness and then…I don’t know. What the fuck happened to me?>

“Mr. Fuller, please follow my pen light please.” The Doctor waved the small, bright, white light back and forth right in front of his face to regain his attention.

<My name is Gerald Fuller, I was born on April 19th, 1992, and I’m from Boston, Massachusetts. My name is Gerald Fuller…> It took him a second to realize the Doctor was talking to him.

The last week felt like it had passed in a haze. He was in an out of consciousness, and he wasn’t sure why. Nothing really hurt, as far as he could tell he wasn’t injured, but an inescapable exhaustion seemed to have seeped into his bones. It felt like the worst case of Mono ever.

“Please, Mr. Fuller, we need to assess you for possible traumatic brain injury. It’s incredible you survived unharmed, but you were found unconscious, and you’ve only stopped dropping in and out of consciousness over the last few days. We need to rule out any head trauma before you’re released.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Gerry sighed and shook his head.

Since he’d woken up in a pile of rubble, only bits and pieces of his memory had come back to him. He’d learned his name, date of birth, and where he resided from his Driver’s License. He learned he liked being called Gerry instead of Gerald because the dozens of people who interviewed him called him Gerald and it just felt wrong.

The cops, the fire department, the Army, the FBI, it didn’t matter who they were. They’d all taken their turns sitting beside his hospital bed with fake smiles, and even faker attitudes. Even their words felt fake in his ears. On top of that, they all asked the same questions, and were pissed when he gave them all the same answers:

“I didn’t see anything. I don’t remember anything. What do you not understand about that?”

“The first thing I remember is some guy pulling me out of the rubble and me being buck-ass naked.”

“No, I didn’t see two giant creatures fighting outside my building. I’m not fucking crazy.” The last answer got him a lot of unsure stares. Apparently, not believing in three-hundred-foot dueling monsters made him the weird one.

Gerry shook off the recent memories and refocused on the cute Doctor. At least she normally would have been cute. She looked like she was going on seventy-two hours without sleep, and the only thing keeping her on her feet was a coffee IV. He focused on the light even as it burned his retina.

BURNING

It felt like something grabbed his head and started to squeeze. A memory burst inside his mind like a water balloon filled with acid, but it wasn’t complete. There were shadows, blank spots, and scenes seemed to shift around with no coherent focus. What he remembered was pain; searing agonizing pain that started in his chest and seemed to consume everything.

<Fire…sword…a man with four faces…death everywhere…> He tried to catalogue what he was seeing, but it all slipped away as soon as he thought he had it. He could feel the pain like an echo, and his hand shot to his heart.

“Mr. Fuller…Mr. Fuller, are you ok?” The Doctor moved the light away from his face and pulled her stethoscope from around her neck. She put it to his chest and listened. “Your heart is going a mile a minute. Just calm down, Mr. Fuller.”

<Stop calling me Mr. Fuller!> Gerry imagined himself reaching out and yanking the Doctor’s head to the side and spinning it one hundred and eighty degrees around.

After the brief hallucination of destruction, the murderous daydream should have cranked his confusion and anxiety up another notch. Instead, the imagined violence seemed to soothe him.

<What’s wrong with me? There is no way that is ok.>

“It’s ok, Mr. Fuller. You survived something traumatic, but you’re safe now.”

Somewhere deep in his gut, Gerry didn’t believe a word she was saying.

“Normally, I’d keep you another night for observation, but we really don’t have the room. I’ll have them process your paperwork and we’ll get you out of here,” she gave him a weak smile and opened the door out of his room.

The screams of pain, the cries of the desperate, and the sounds of medical technology floated in before she shut the door. Gerry only caught a small glimpse of the hallway lined with beds. A few had spare sheets thrown over the recently deceased until they could be moved, and some faces were new, but other than that nothing had changed.

Every inch of the hospital was filled to the brim. They were operating beyond capacity and anyone else being pulled from the rubble was getting shipped nearly to Greensboro or Columbia depending on what side of the city they were found on. After a week of searching, those finds were getting few and far between. Any longer and all they were going to find were starved and dehydrated corpses.

All things considered, the hospitals around Charlotte were lucky. They were closing in on one hundred thousand confirmed casualties, but less than one percent of those were injured. Ninety-nine percent went to the morgues. It was a morose way to look at it, but if there were more injured and less dead every hospital within hundreds of miles would have been overrun with patients. As it was now, they were doing ok with the help of the extra Red Cross and FEMA mobile aid stations that had been shipped in.

As he sat there waiting for his discharge paperwork, Gerry heard people crying, cursing, and just wondering why this was happening.

“What did we do to deserve this?” was the most common phrase uttered.

There was a sense of gloom hovering over the hospital, and the entire city, but Gerry didn’t feel any of that. He didn’t feel bad for anyone. He didn’t question why any of this had happened. In fact, he felt a sense of justice; like this was supposed to happen. He didn’t say any of this out loud because people would have beaten him to death in his sleep, but coupled with the hallucinations and violent daydreams he seriously wondered if something inside him had snapped.

<People aren’t supposed to act like this.> Even sitting here and waiting he wanted to end of the other men in the room. The guy snored in his sleep, and Gerry’s mind kept dancing back and forth between murder by blunt force trauma or smothering him with his drool-covered pillow.

“Mr. Fuller.” The Doctor finally returned with a stack of paperwork, and ended the fantasies. “I just need you to review these and sign here.”

The hospital had killed a whole lot of trees just to say that once he left the hospital nothing that happened was the hospital’s fault. Since he wanted to get the hell out of here, he didn’t waste any time signing.

“Thank you, Mr. Fuller, I hope we don’t see you back here.”

“You and me both, Doc.” He gave her a wink, gave the snoring man one last look, and then slid off the bed and onto his feet.

Gerry knew instinctually he was a powerfully built man: six-four with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, legs like twin tree trunks, and well-developed muscles all across his body. The Doctor coughed and turned away as red spread through her cheeks. Gerry was similarly gifted below the belt.

He literally ripped off the hospital gown with the embarrassing opening at the back, and shrugged into a set of clothing the Red Cross volunteers had brought him. The gray sweatpants looked like someone had used them for painting at some point, but they fit his large quads even if he had to cinch them tight at the waist. The T-Shirt was a XXXL and felt like a tent even with his big frame, but it was better than the gown. There was a shortage of shoes, but a company had donated footwear called Crocs that were easy to slip on. His were highlighter yellow and they didn’t go with his paint-stained, too-large ensemble.

<I’ve dealt with worst.> He had no idea what ‘worst’ he was thinking of, but he was confident this was nothing but a mild embarrassment.

Lastly, he gathered the wallet that was on his bedside table. They found nothing else near him when they’d found him, so this was literally the only thing on Earth he owned. Still, he felt he’d be alright.

He gave the room one last look and his gaze focused on the snoring man. Something inside of Gerry pulled him toward the vulnerable sleeper. All it would take was a few pounds of pressure and the snoring would end forever. He could feel the urge to kill the man building in his gut, and even worse, he knew by doing that he would get something in return. Whatever it was, it would be worth it.

He took a step toward the man…and the door burst open.

“Coming through!” A nurse shoved him out of the way as a four-person team carted a new patient into the room and plopped him on Gerry’s old bed. “You, get out of here.” She shooed him away, and the tired but fierce look on her face spurred him into motion.

The sun was setting outside, and he had nowhere to stay tonight. He didn’t know anyone, he barely knew himself, and he wasn’t going to be reaching the home on his license anytime soon.

<There are plenty of refugee centers.> He’d seen reports on the news. That is where he would spend the night and then figure out what to do in the morning.

The hallway was packed with beds and people trying to move around: cops, EMTs, armed soldiers, and the hospital’s medical staff all jostled each other around as they walked down the hallway. Gerry adding his bulk to that didn’t help, so he kept his head down and avoided other people’s eyes. Something in his gut told him he didn’t want to draw any attention.

He did such a good job of ignoring people that he missed the two young women that stopped and did a one-eighty at the sight of him.

“Well, spank my ass and call me Shirley,” the teenage girl pushing a bed, handed over the task to her accomplice, pivoted, and started to follow him out of the building.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 173

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Argo, Hahn System, Eastern Block of Nations

“Transition.” LT Briggs announced as if the jolt of the ship exiting Alcubierre wasn’t enough notice.

Ben watched attentively as the holo began to expand to its one-light-minute bubble radius. “Confirm our location, Navigation.” He ordered.

It took thirty seconds for CPL Diez to get back to him, which was the first sign that something was wrong. “Sir, we’re…”

“Fifty thousand kilometers off course,” the XO finished when the CPL failed to finish his sentence.

Ben took several deep breaths, tried to keep his face composed, but gripped his command chair tightly to vent his frustration. “Corporal, explain to me why we missed our exit point by more than the circumference of planet Earth?”

The CPL didn’t have an answer. He just looked at his station and shrugged.

“It’s my fault, Sir. I didn’t double check his calculations carefully enough.” The LT came to the rescue.

Technically, she was right. As the direct supervisor of the bridge crew, she was responsible to make sure everything ran smoothly. She was responsible for checking the Alcubierre jump calculations. Without a Launcher, things were already trickier, but that still wasn’t a good excuse for the CPL. The XO had her hand in a half dozen different things at the time of their transition. As the subject matter expert, the CPL should be pretty close to the mark. A few thousand kilometers here or there were acceptable. Fifty thousand was not.

“This is a bad start to a critical operation,” Ben raised his voice so the whole bridge could hear. “Get it together, now.”

“Yes, Sir.” The crew acknowledged and got back to it.

“Sir,” the LT walked up to stand next to his command chair. “I’ve got some good news.”

<I could use some.> Ben watched their progression farther into Hahn System.

“We’re out of position, but we still made the elliptical and are headed on the correct heading, we’re just farther forward then we planned.”

As bad as things could get with a bad transition, this was as good a scenario as he could hope for.

“Engineering, reduce speed so we don’t outrun the rest of the task force when they transition. Navigation, replot our escape routes to adjust for our new position. Weapons, get me a green in the next few minutes, and, Coms, start listening for any traffic. XO, deploy the drone screen.”

“Yes, Sir.” Acknowledgements rang throughout the bridge as people got back to work.

Even as Argo slowed down, Ben’s view of the system grew as the high-speed drones shot out of the gunboat’s belly and streaked toward their targets last known location. Ben had thirty minutes to get a fix on the enemy’s position and strength before the task force arrived.

As the screening elements rapidly pushed forward more of the system came under Ben’s watchful gaze. Ten minutes after transition he had a decent view of the system’s outermost planet.

“Angle Drone Five toward the planet.” Ben remembered from his briefing that the Mobile Dockyard was supposed to be orbiting the frozen moon of the planet.

Six more minutes passed. “I’ve got contact.” The XO announced as red icons started to populate the holo-tank at the center of the bridge. “It looks like they were trying to hide in the shadow of the moon when they detected our transition.”

“Reposition the Drone to get as much data on the enemy as possible, but keep one on each of our flanks. We don’t want someone sneaking up on us.” Ben watched as the crew executed and nodded. It might have been a rough start, but things were looking up now, and it felt good to be doing simple gunboat operations.

“We’ve got a good read on them, Sir.” The XO informed as their system registered the ripple of the task force’s Alcubierre arrival behind them. “We’re reasonably confident in the two battlecruisers flanking the dockyard. We’ve also picked up three other signatures. We’ve got two pegged as destroyers, but the emissions we’re picking up on Bogey-Five are inconsistent. It’s either another destroyer or a small cruiser. We’ll need to get closer to get a better read.”

“This is going to have to be good enough. Good work everyone,” Ben congratulated the crew and waited for the might of the task force to arrive.

They did with a vengeance. Lancelot led the way looking deadly and impossible from a pure tonnage standpoint, followed by Andromeda and her four sister battlecruisers, the missile cruiser Deluge, and the Star Kingdom’s cruiser Benjamin Disraeli bringing up the rear. It was nine against five, or six if you counted the mobile dockyard’s defensive capabilities, but that didn’t mean anything. In terms of energy cannons and missiles the two forces could put into the air, the Commonwealth-Star Kingdom alliance could throw nearly three times more in both categories.

The Blockies realized this quickly because they started to change course and head away from Hahn-Six’s gravity well so they could jump to Alcubierre. Ben did the calculations and smiled.

“We caught them with their pants down everyone.” A small cheer went up from the bridge crew. “They’ll be in our engagement envelope for a full twenty-two minutes before they can reach a safe Alcubierre distance. We’ll pound them to rubble, take the water reserves from the moon base, and then destroy the infrastructure there. This should go well for all of us.”

He didn’t address it directly, but with Argo’s prior service record they could use a win.

“Helm, start to bring up around to course one-one-zero. Let’s make some room for the task force. We don’t want to be caught…”

The holo-tank abruptly changed. Lancelot vanished from the plot and was replaced by dozens of blinking escape pod icons.

“What the hell?” Ben’s jaw dropped as the biggest ship in the system suddenly became finely dispersed star dust. “Was there a reactor failure?” His mind immediately went to the recent repairs the battleship had just completed.

His eyes were still glued to the holo-tank as the acceleration of one of the battlecruisers abruptly fell and the eight-hundred-meter war machine spiraled out of formation.

Then the plot lit up like a Christmas tree as a volley of missiles erupted from Benjamin Disraeli and streaked toward the task force. There were only ninety of them, but they were so close that they cut through the scattered point defense of the Commonwealth ships and crippled another battlecruiser.

Ben just sat there in horror as the battlecruiser disgorged escape pods into a growing debris field.  The next change to the holo-tank was less lethal, but just as frightening. The supposed allied cruiser’s icon went from friendly blue to hostile red. The former ally took out ten times its tonnage in less than thirty seconds, so it was no wonder the CIC back on Andromeda was updating the status and pushing it out to the remaining Commonwealth ships.

Benjamin Disraeli fired another broadside, but this time the remaining battlecruisers were ready. They still took a pounding. Ben analyzed the sensor data and saw that a lot more missiles were making it through the countermeasures than the most pessimistic techs thought possible when they first started to analyze the Star Kingdom’s missiles effectiveness after the battle in System 1552. Andromeda bucked under the weight of focused antimatter blasts, but she kept on fighting. The flagship coordinated its fire with the missile cruiser Deluge and sent back the Commonwealth’s first response to the betrayal: one hundred and eighty missiles strong.

It only took a few seconds for the barrage to cross the distance between the warring ships. They were in knife fighting range, but Ben still watched in amazement as the enemy cruiser’s point defense chewed through the incoming ordinance. He’d never seen anything like it. Argo’s sensors couldn’t pick up any railgun rounds, but the point defense lasers were spitting out faster than he knew possible, and they weren’t missing. Of the one hundred and eighty missiles, fired at near point-blank range in terms of space combat, only forty made it through.

That should be enough to badly damage a cruiser, even one as large as the Star Kingdom’s, but again Ben got to see something new. The space around the ship flared as lasers, pressure waves, and duro-steel rounds from can openers impacted the space around it.

“They’ve got fucking shields!” Chief Yates was the first to say it. “How the hell did they pack something like that onto a cruiser?”

But it got worse. When the cruiser cleared the cloud of sensor-blocking destruction the forty explosions had created, it looked completely unharmed.

“Sir, I have Captain Jacobson on TACCOM.” SP2 Olvera’s voice was shaky.

“Put her through. On video if you have it.” Ben sat back down in his command chair.

CAPT Jacobson’s face appeared on the holo hovering in front of him. It looked like she’d aged ten years in ten seconds. “Lieutenant Commander,” she sounded calm, but Ben saw an awful lot of smoke in the background behind her. “Change of mission. You are to return to New Lancashire with all haste and inform Admiral Nelson of the Star Kingdom’s treachery. We will hold off the Disraeli so you can escape and then follow once we’ve gathered the escape pods. Please acknowledge.”

“Receipt of mission change acknowledged. Argo will return to New Lancashire and tell the Admiral what happened here.” He had a bad feeling that Andromeda following them wasn’t in the cards.

“Good luck, Gold.” Jacobson cut the link just as more fire was exchanged between the embattled ships.

There was no plume of a reactor gone critical and destroying a whole ship with all hands, but Andromeda took another pounding and was starting to list dangerously to port. Something big had been broken. One of her sister ships was putting on more speed to get between the battered flagship and the enemy, but Ben didn’t know if they were going to make it in time. That thought was reinforced as a massive energy blast from Disraeli’s main cannon shot through space and practically cleaved Deluge in two.

<What the fuck is in those things?> Despite the new orders, Ben couldn’t take his eyes from the holo-tank. A single overweight cruiser was battering the crap out of a far superior task force.

Suddenly, he didn’t feel so comfortable in the force supremacy of the Commonwealth in York Sector.

“Sir!” CPL Diez shouted.

Ben dragged his eyes away from the task force and refocused on the original threat. The Blockies had changed course and were heading straight for the struggling task force.

<Is the Star Kingdom with the Blockies now?> Ben didn’t know, but it looked that way.

“Grab as much sensor data as you can.” He knew the order was superfluous, but he said it anyway. “That data is going to be more important than all of our lives. Helm, we better be at full military power.”

Argo was a lone, blue spec caught in the open between two opposing forces. It was the fastest ship in the system, unless the Disraeli was hiding some hidden acceleration capabilities, which Ben wasn’t willing to rule out.

For the second time in his six-month deployment, Ben was running for help. He didn’t like it. It made him feel like a coward, but as he watched the wreckage of the bisected Deluge finally splitting apart and spinning off into space, he knew he had to follow orders. What had begun in Hahn System was just the start.

The rest of the Commonwealth needed to be warned.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 172

Location: Alcubierre Launcher, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“Roger that, Food For Thought, you are clear to transition. Thank you for visiting New Lancashire. STC, out.” The operator sitting at the center of the Launcher’s Space Traffic Control Command Center cut the line, but watched the plot on his holo carefully.

Food For Thought was a one-hundred-and-seventy-five-thousand ton cargo vessel from Mackintosh Shipping Conglomerate, so the operator’s cheery attitude had a little to do with the ship belonging to the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth. Standing orders from RADM Nelson were to be extra warm and fuzzy to Mackintosh and Gold ships.

The icon on the operator’s holo blinked out of existence as the ship was thrown off into space faster than the speed of light. “Good transition.” The operator reported to the Chief Petty Officer he was assigned under.

Space Traffic Control was a joint military-civilian operation. It made it a little uncomfortable for civilians to be integrated into the military bureaucracy, and for the soldiers and spacers to be subjected to the soft management styles of civilian superiors. It changed both parties, and they generally had a little trouble getting their bearings when they left the job…if they left it. It was a good job for civvies and a good assignment for spacers, so turnover and reassignment wasn’t too often.

“Who’s next in the queue?” The CPO asked as he studied his own holo. The Fleet NCO’s was more comprehensive, and had a threat component aspect monitoring a few light minutes out from the Launcher. The operator’s view was of the Launcher itself and the inbound and outbound lanes.

“Next up is EUS Versailles: a Euro courier boat, three-thousand tons, crew of eight, weapons compliment is one missile tube and one one-hundred terawatt frontal energy cannon, cargo is personal mail and sensitive but unclassified military communications. Their manifest destination is Neu-Thüringen. Requesting commander approval for access to SALN.”

Secure Alliance Launcher Network access was needed for the European Union ship to transition from a Commonwealth controlled system to an EU system. The QE coordinates of Launchers were highly guarded state secrets, which made travel between them difficult. The SALN was the answer to that problem.

“Command approval,” the CPO transmitted a few minutes later after getting the Launcher CO to sign off on the transfer. “Commencing sensor scan.”

All ships going in and out of the system by way of the Launcher were given a cursory active scan. The Launcher was a great place to do it because ships were passing within the fifty-kilometer prongs of the launcher. In astronomical distances, that was practically right on top of each other.

It wasn’t a catchall, but if people were hiding something the scan had a decent chance of picking up on it. In person scans could be done by boarding parties from the Fleet’s ships, or on the ground by the local cops or MPs.

“Scan completed. Tell Versailles they’re good to go.” The CPO paid close attention to the operator’s handling of this transition.

Through SALN the operator got the QE coordinates for the EU Launcher in Neu-Thüringen. An encrypted burst was sent to the courier ship. After a few minutes, the ship toggled back that they were good to go.

“Thank you for the hospitality, New Lancashire.” The captain of the little boat sent back. It had the robotic tone of a translator unit.

Unlike the Commonwealth, whose primary language was English due to three of the four major powers at the starfarring nation’s founding being English speaking, the EU was a nation of many different languages. Most people in the EU tried to learn as many languages as they could, but with the old United Kingdom’s influence falling by the wayside hundreds of years ago, English was about fourth on the priority list of the educational institutions behind German, French, and Spanish. Most Commonwealth citizens were comfortable with only English and Spanish, but that just didn’t cut it in their economic and military ally of half a millennia.

“Versailles is away.” The operator reported as the EU ship disappeared from his plot.

“Hold outbound traffic.” The CPO instructed. “We’ve got a military inbound scheduled in fifteen minutes. It should be CWS Fortitude returning from repairs.”

“Roger that.” The operator sent out the message to halt traffic. He got the standard amount of grumbling back, but the spacers traveling between the stars on the Commonwealth network knew not to rock the boat when the military needed priority.

The ripple in time and space indicating an Alcubierre exit appeared right where it was supposed to in the Launcher’s inbound lane. The operator checked the ripple for the telltale signs and found the estimations matched a ship of Fortitude’s weight class. Now all they had to do was wait.

Three minutes later, eight minutes before Fortitude’s arrival, the lights in the STC Command Center dropped to red and a claxon started wailing.

“Unscheduled arrival! ETA six minutes!” The CPO was on his feet smashing his hand into alert buttons. “Set Condition Two!”

Launchers didn’t have calls to battlestations like warships. They had defensive conditions to prepare the Launchers to repel boarders and ready their defensive options. Condition Two was the second most severe. It got the Launcher’s marine contingent into armor and assembled. It also got all of the defensive railguns and point defense lasers online and integrated with STC. There were a lot of those on the large structure.  It started painting the area around the Launcher with enough active sensors that they could tell the flavor of a spacer’s shit on a mining ship within five thousand kilometers.  Lastly, it sent an alert to the Fleet. Unfortunately, those warships were two dozen million miles away right now, and even at full speed ahead it was take a while to reach the Launcher.

However, the crew of Fortitude’s sister ship, Liberty, was on picket duty around the Launcher less than two hundred and fifty thousand kilometers away, and it’s targeting systems were going hot.

Two modern cruisers wasn’t a bad defensive force this far out in the Outer Rim, but if this was a big Blockie push to counter the frequent Commonwealth strikes, the two ships wouldn’t be enough.

<How the hell did they get our coordinates?> was what was on everyone’s mind, but no one had time to consider the possibilities.

Condition-Two wasn’t fully set when Fortitude appeared out of nowhere. The ship had transferred to sub-light but retained a decent amount of acceleration. At such close distances, the communication between Fortitude, Liberty, and the Launcher was nearly instantaneous. The crew of STC watched as the five-hundred-meter long warship rotated on its access and dove below the system’s elliptical. Collision alarms rang in the STC as Fortitude came within a few dozen kilometers of the outbound ships that had scattered after receiving the Launcher’s Condition-Two alert.

“Oh my God.” The operator was studying the ripple in space of the unexpected arrival. What he was seeing made him want to piss himself.

He sent the results of the scan to the CPO whose face went pale at the information. “Not possible. Do it again!” The CPO demanded.

The operator didn’t blame him, but numbers didn’t lie. The tonnage the ripple projected out massed the entire defensive Fleet in the system. The operator sent the same numbers back to the CPO, who was already on the horn with the people that mattered. Again, all they could do was wait.

The operator wiped his sweaty palms on his smartcloth pants over and over again. It didn’t seem to help, and as the large timer on the wall steadily wound down, it got even worse.

“Condition-Two set.” The report came through.

The OIC of the Launcher was in the command center now, and all he had to do was press a button for them to go to Condition-One, which meant they would open fire on the enemy and deploy their troops.

“Arrival in ten…nine…”

The operator gulped and looked at the small holo of his wife he kept on his desk.

“…six…five…four…”

He ran his fingers through it and prayed to every god in the pantheon of humanity that he got to see her again.

“…two…one…transition…”

The enemy appeared and everyone froze.

“Holy shit!”

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 44

“That’ll be ten-eighteen.” The cashier drawled in a thick, backwoods, southern accent that made Lilly want to punch her in the twat.

Not all of that was the cashier’s fault. The supervillain known as Wraith, one of the most wanted people in the country, doesn’t like to sit still, and she’s been sitting with her thumb up her ass for over a week. If it wasn’t for the man she loved, she would have skipped town already, but because it was Seth Abney lying unconscious on the table she stayed put and waited.

“Wanna leave a tip?” The cashier took the ten and five Lilly handed her and waited for an answer before opening the cash register.

Lilly had been looking for a beauty store, but the town closest to the healer’s place didn’t have one. What it did have was a minimart attached to the local gas station that also included a Subway. The cashier worked the small sandwich shop along with operating the rest of the minimart. She was young, had probably just finished high school and wasn’t going to college. She was pretty, Lilly guessed cheerleader, but seemed dumb as rocks. Exhibit A was asking for a tip for just working the cash register. Maybe it would be more appropriate to do it if she made Lilly a sandwich, but even then, you didn’t tip at fast food places.

“No.” Lilly’s agitation leaked out in her answer.

“Fine. Whatever.” The girl rolled her eyes and went to get change.

Lilly bit the inside of her cheek enough that she tasted blood. She imagined herself reaching over the counter, grabbing the blonde-headed bimbo by the back of her stupid head, and repeatedly bashing it into the register. Over and over and over, until her pretty face was a pulped-up mess of skin, bone, and blood. That’s what she wanted to do, but she couldn’t. She was lying low, which was the reason she was at the “beauty store” in the first place.

It had been over a week, and Seth was still unconscious. The healer said that he’d fixed Seth up, but the energy expended staying alive had put Seth into a coma. The healer didn’t seem worried. He still worked on Seth a few times a day to fix up anything that was going wrong, but the man seemed confident Seth would wake up soon.

<He better, or I’ll put him down for good.> Lilly made a silent promise.

The prolonged coma left her with a problem. She and Morina took up a lot of space at the healer’s home, and it was clear he was unhappy with them being there. Lilly couldn’t give a flying fuck how the guy felt, but he was working on Seth, so she needed to stay in the healer’s good graces. To remedy the issue, she found a cheap-ass motel ten miles away, and had moved into the place with Morina.

The dude at the front desk was a creeper of the highest order. He asked if they wanted to rent the room by the hour, and even offered to advertise discretely for them. Lilly told him to fist himself, before plopping down two weeks of payment and walking off.

The guy ended up dying in a car accident two days later. The paper said he was drunk when he ran his shitty car into a telephone pole. The only other comment the paper made was the amount of blood. Apparently, the impact had burst the man open and spilled his essence all over the place. The cops at the scene didn’t qualify it as out of the ordinary, but it was a gruesome sight. Lilly asked Morina about it when the girl looked particularly satisfied, and the other woman just shrugged. Lilly left it at that.

Lilly left the minimart with the cashier still breathing and hopped in her car. She’d bought the rusted, beat up piece of crap out of some guy’s backyard off Craigslist. It was in good enough shape to make the trips back and forth to the healers. Aside from that, she didn’t care how it ran, and it blended in.

She drove back to the motel. The new front desk attendant was a lady, who didn’t even look up from the paperback she was reading when Lilly walked past her. Lilly opened the door to the smell of pizza and Morina watching something on the Discovery Chanel. Some guy was showing how to chop up a fish in the wild, and she was glued to it.

“I’ll be in the bathroom.” Lilly didn’t wait for a response. She walked into the room, locked the door, and dumped her supplies in the tub. Hair dye dropped into the onto the stained-white anti-slip pad with a dull thud.

Lilly sat on the edge and took a few deep breaths. Her hands were shaking from the sheer frustration. She knew she couldn’t do anything to speed the process along. She couldn’t do anything to help, and it was driving her crazy. All that she could think to do was fall back on her training.

No one had come through the rift she left in space when teleporting to Alabama, but she wasn’t going to get complacent. Just because there wasn’t any news of anyone coming through and looking around didn’t mean someone didn’t pop over get a location, and planned to come back later. She found it was always better to be hyper-vigilant when dealing with Heroes like Hunter. That’s why she had the hair dye.

She read the instructions to make sure this brand wasn’t too different than others. You could never be too careful when the store you bought it from doubled as the town’s fine dining establishment. She mixed the solution into her natural brown hair and mumbled a slew or curses as it stung like a bitch. Her scalp was probably dry and that was turning this into hell, but she was no stranger to pain. She sucked it up, waited the allotted time, and then continued. Putting the actual dye in went better.

“Hey…whoa…” Morina poked her head in.

Lilly had her head under the tub’s facet and was rinsing. Streams of black flowed from her head and down the drain. “What?” she asked.

“Uh…healer man called. He’s seeing some activity.” Morina relayed the message as Lilly started to towel off.

Her relationship with Seth had started as blonde, he’d seen her natural brown hair, and now he was going to wake up to a dark-haired beauty.

“What the hell are we waiting for?” Lilly quickly grabbed the blow dryer, ducked her head, threw her hair up and over, and ran the blast of warm air through it.

“Waiting for you to finish blow drying your hair.” Morina answered the rhetorical question, but Lilly was too busy trying to get ready that she didn’t care.

With her small amount of tradecraft completed she hoped no one would recognize her if they did show up looking for newcomers to the town, and even if they did track her down, she hoped they hesitated for one crucial moment so she could escape. Fifteen minutes of protesting scalp was worth getting out of Alabama alive with a healthy Seth.

 

***

 

A warm tropical breeze blew through the cabana and brought the salty smell of the sea with it. The sun was shining perfectly above them, but they had the top covered to avoid getting burned.

Seth sat looking out at the beautiful, blue ocean and sighed contently. “This is a dream.” He knew the truth, but it didn’t make him sad.

He remembered he’d been shot. Some crazy bitch who used people’s blood as a weapon had sprung him from the Protectorate HQ. The same psycho may or may not blackmail him with the deal he may or may not have cut with the ADA for Lilly’s capture. All of those were distant hypotheticals in this paradise, and the paradise was made perfect by the fine, tan ass he had a great view of when he turned his head.

“Eyes up here, big boy.” Liz laughed.

She was still Liz in this place, not Lilly, or Wraith. Her hair was still golden and her eyes mischievous with whatever she had planned for tonight. This dream was drawing from their previous winter break to the Caribbean. It had been absolute heaven: sunny beaches, perfect weather, fine dining, even better sex, and a careless abandon where they could put all their worries behind them. He wished it could last forever.

“I’m going to wake up soon, aren’t I?” Seth knew enough about dreams that you only tended to remember the ends of them.

“Probably.” Liz rolled over and traded a view of her great ass for a bikini that barely contained her. She smiled when she saw him looking, but didn’t call him on it like last time. She was wearing fashionable aviators that she tilted up on the top of her head. “Got anything to say before you rejoin the land of the living?” Her lips quirked in the adorable smile he loved.

“Does it matter even if I do? You aren’t real.” Seth sighed and laid back down to look up at the sun. The canopy had mysteriously folded back and bathed them in war rays.

“Sure. I’m a figment of your subconscious. Sometimes admitting something to yourself is the first step to something bigger.” She shrugged in that way that meant she didn’t give a shit, but she usually did.

“I love you.” Seth admitted. “I tried not to. I tried to compartmentalizing all of this,” he waved a paradise, “and put it in the back of my mind to forget about it.” He sighed heavily and the sun vanished behind some clouds. “I know I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t be attracted to a murderer, terrorist, and general law breaker, but I can’t stop myself, and I don’t think you can either.”

He looked back over to her and she was smiling. She pulled the aviators back down over her eyes. “So, what are you going to do about it? You going to fight for her, fight her, or fight for something better?”

“Those are three very broad paths.” He shot back.

“Sure they are. You haven’t figured out your plan yet, so everything is broad, but the possibilities are also endless.” Her smile didn’t falter. “You’re a great man, Seth, and I know that sounds egotistical as fuck coming from yourself, but you are great. You’ve got power, wealth, rugged good looks, and a woman, who despite what she is, what you are, and both your circumstances, is still fighting for you. Do you think it would have been easier to just use you like a sex toy and dump your ass after she got the info she needed? It sure as hell would have.” She nodded her head aggressively. “But in the end she came for you, or sent someone in her place to come for you. She’s going to be there when you wake up, and we’re going to have to figure some shit out.”

“Any advice?” Seth rolled over and draped his arm over her body. It felt so right.

“Nothing that you haven’t already thought of,” she chuckled.

It was getting darker and darker all around them. The sun was gone, the sound of the sea had vanished, and all that was left was them in the cabana. Voices were starting to drift around him in the dark. Familiar and unfamiliar voices.

“Well it’s been fun talking with you…or me…whatever this is.” Seth ran his hand over her hip one last time.

“We can do some hand stuff before you wake up if you want?” Her eyes twinkled mischievously.

“What the hell, why not.”

He’d only worked his shorts down to his knees before something yanked him upward. It wasn’t the good type of yanking. The pleasantness of the sun’s warmth was gone from his body. Now, everything ached a little. When he cracked open his eyes, something violently assaulted his vision, and he had to snap them back closed with a moan.

“Seth,” a voice called softly. “Can you hear me?”

Seth would know that voice anywhere. It had just asked if he wanted a handy.

“Lilly?” He used her real name, because despite how pleasant the dream was, this was reality. The dull ache throughout his body proved that, and Lilly was her real name, and he needed to separate the two.

“I’m here, babe. I’m right here.” Something gripped his right hand and shocked him. He knew better than to think the shock meant something more than a simple buildup of static electricity, but damn if it didn’t hit him at his core.

“Turn the lights down.” She commanded, and he felt the violent assault of his eyelids lessen.

With the pressure gone, he was able to open them partially. He stared up at a familiar face, but one that had changed recently. It wasn’t filled with boundless confidence. It showed worry, mixed with a speck of agitation, and despite their fucked-up circumstances, a whole lot of love.

“Hey you.” Seth’s free hand went to cup the side of her face.

She was smiling so hard there were tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. “You scared the shit out of me.” She laughed and wiped one of her eyes before grapping his other hand too. “If you’d died, I’d have to bring you back the life so I could kill you myself.”

It was a joke, but the mention of killing made Seth frown.

“I’m sorry,” she saw the change in emotions. “Just rest. In a couple of days we’ll get out of here.”

“Where are we going, what are we going to do?” Seth voiced the questions and they sounded a lot like what dream Liz had been asking him.

“I don’t know, but we’re in it together.” Her grip tightened on his and made him feel safe.

“We need rules,” he felt like he ruined the moment, but it needed to be said.

The corner of Lilly’s mouth dropped into a frown, but she quickly shook it away. “Yes, we do. We need to figure all this shit out.”

“One thing I don’t need to figure out.” Seth pulled her close and tenderly kissed her lips.

“Yeah,” she breathed out and rested her forehead against his. “We’re on the same page there.”

“Ugh…you’re going to make me sick. Get a room you two.” Morina stood at the door with her arms crossed.

“We’re going to need another room at the motel.” Lilly nodded, ignoring the rest of Morina’s statement.

Seth had an idea what she had in mind, and was willing to take the pain. They had a lot of talking and making up to do.

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