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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PCS to Eden – Calm Before the Storm

“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah…hallelujah…ha-lle-lu-jah!” A choir of mortal souls sang their praises at the entrance to the Hall on Most High.

Their words were filled with joy, wonder, and awe. Handel, the composer of this particular hymn, stood among the choir shouting his love of God. Michael couldn’t help but smile as he walked past the small gathering. The humans righteous enough to gain entrance through the Pearly Gates often clung to their old ways, and the atmosphere of Heaven encouraged those souls to do what they wished.

The manipulation of æther in Heaven was not the same as in Eden or Hell. The Archangel didn’t know how the building blocks of the universe were twisted in Hell, but they were collected in Eden. They were collected in the souls of man and the bosom of nature. His Father had done a truly magnificent thing on Earth.

In Heaven, æther wasn’t collected. It was expressed by God himself. Aether permeated everything with a sense of calm and content. Many of the souls granted entry had lived hard lives serving others and following the commandments of God. Constant peace was their reward.

<If only.> Michael mused as he tried to avoid stepping on any of the humans.

He was in his true form in Heaven – three hundred feet tall – but without his armor. Armor was for the battlefield, so he wore a plain white tunic that allowed his wings to spread freely behind him.

Stepping on the humans wouldn’t do anything. They would poof like a cloud and quickly reform, but it was considered rude and bad manners. These souls deserved respect.

“All hail the Sword of God!” The choir ceased their praise and waved as Michael passed.

He waved back, but didn’t stop. He’d learned long ago that stopping would lead to hours of discussion. It was usually riveting discussion, but time was of the essence. He made one long stride and he was passed them and into the Hall on Most High.

To his left and right were statues, icons, and trophies of his Father. Only when you passed them did you see hidden nooks where members of the Cherubim Guard stood on watch. There would have been a time when those hiding places were empty, but they’d been manned, to some degree, since the War of Rebellion. Today, every spot was filled, and roving patrols walked the hall. The items of celestial power in this hall couldn’t fall into enemy hands.

The Hall itself swirled with his Father’s æther. If God deemed it necessary, he could make the hall loop around so invaders or thieves would run in an endless circle until caught. It was the first of many countermeasures to keep these items out of enemy hands.

Michael didn’t have to walk before another angel joined him. “Castor.” Michael nodded to the Captain of the Cherubim Guard.

Most humans didn’t know the true nature of cherubim. Popular culture showed them as fat, baby-like creatures with bows that dispensed love to humans in need. The only thing remotely true in that description was the bow. The armored angels of the cherubim were masters of the bow, spear, sword, shield and wore all of them into battle. In reality, the cherubim were some of Heaven’s fiercest warriors. Their most recent deployment was driving the Infernals from Eden into Hell under the command of Michael and other archangels millennia ago. Castor had been there.

“Michael, you look better.” Castor gave the heavenly general a quick once over.

Michael’s recent battle with Satan had left him with several new scars and a deep amount of guilt. The Powers were monitoring the situation in Charlotte, but the casualty numbers were rising, and it was all his fault.

<I couldn’t defeat him.> It had been a draw, but in the tie Satan had still accomplished his mission.

The Veil his Father had erected between the realms was crumbling. Infernals would start making forays into Eden when the realized the weakness, and humanity would suffer their wrath. All that stood between them and destruction was the Divine Host.

“Chin up, Brother.” Castor noticed the pain on his older brother’s face. “We will finally defeat them once and for all.”

Castor was a slightly smaller version of Michael. He was just a hair under three hundred feet tall with shoulder length black hair bound together by a strip of leather. His steel gray eyes weren’t cruel, but they were intense to the point of indifference. Like Michael, he had seen the worst this universe had to offer while defending Heaven and Eden from a multitude of threats. Michael wouldn’t say his younger brother was eager for war, but he was eager to end the fighting. Although, Michael knew Castor would have no idea what to do with himself if they actually succeeded.

Michael didn’t reply as they reached the end of the hall. Two squads of Cherubim stood to either side of the entrance to God’s throne room, while a single angel stood blocking anyone’s path who wished to enter.

The angel was as large as Michael, with four metallic-gray wings fully extended to cover the entrance. He held his sword pommel up with the blade tip resting easily on the floor. It was an imposing stance by an imposing figure.

“Metatron.” Michael gave the Seraph a bow. “Father called for us.”

Metatron didn’t speak. He simply nodded. The Seraph’s voice was just as dangerous as his sword. He’d given up his ability to converse with his brothers and sisters to better protect their Father. God had bestowed the new gift upon him after half his guards were cast into Hell for rebelling against him.

Metatron furled his wings and stepped to the side. The massive doors to the throne room swirled in front of them. They were another line of defense against attack. Right now they weren’t anything more than swirling æther. There was no knob to turn, and if someone tried to rush through they would find themselves back at the main entrance to the Hall on Most High. It was an elegant trick, and it ensured God only saw the people he wanted.

Once Metatron stepped aside the door solidified into an ornately carved piece of white marble. In the center was a starburst that represented the birth of the universe. From that starburst, figures spring forth, but only one was truly defined: their Father.

The door’s seam split right down the center of the starburst and opened to admit Michael and Castor. A second angel, this one larger than Michael or Castor, stood before them.

“Brothers.” Amenadiel gave them a warm smile.

Most considered Michael to be God’s champion and the strongest of the Divine Host. They’d be wrong. The most powerful angel, in terms of sheer strength, was Amenadiel, but strength didn’t make a commander. The second of four Seraphim lacked flexibility. He didn’t have the tactical mindset to adapt and overcome to a constantly changing battlefield. That was why he was their Father’s closest guard and confidant.

Michael suspected that Satan had been jealous of their Father’s relationship with Amenadiel, even though the Prince of Darkness had been Captain of the Seraphim Guard.

“Please follow me.” Amenadiel led the way.

He was in his full regalia of Divine Steel armor and weaponry. All of the Seraphim were ready for battle at all time. Castor was also armed, but Michael had forsaken everything to focus on his healing.

There was no suspicion or paranoia that his brothers were going to turn on him and kill him as they approached his Father’s throne. That only happened in a realm ruled by Satan, and that mentality had already claimed a victim.

Michael had heard of Seere’s death. Despite the former Throne’s exile and theft of Divine property, Michael still mourned his death. He had been a good angel before Lucifer and Satan sunk their teeth into him.

God’s throne rose up before them as they approached. It went up and up without end. The throne connected to all parts of Heaven. It emitted the heavenly peace that the human souls’ cherished, and it gathered æther from Eden as mortals beseeched him for guidance. Despite the immensity of the object it was made of plain wood, bore nothing ornate like other thrones throughout creation, and even looked uncomfortable to sit on. Sitting on it was an ordinary-looking, middle-aged man.

God had normal brown hair cut in a modest style. He had a neatly combed brown beard that took up the majority of his face. Kind blue eyes tinged with sadness were staring intently down at a chess board. A bit of a pot-belly extended from his plain beige tunic. A frayed sandal adorned a calloused foot resting on his knee as he sat cross-legged and watching his opponent closely. If Michael hadn’t been created by this man he wouldn’t have noticed him walking down the street.

God’s chess opponent was the third Seraph, Zebadiah. Zebadiah had been elevated to his position after the War of Rebellion. He took Lucifer’s spot. He was cunning, not as cunning as the Morningstar, but their Father engaged him often in topics of debate. Zebadiah had a firm grasp on modern man and their proclivities.

“Michael, Castor,” God held up a finger for them to wait. He tugged at his beard before moving his queen. “Checkmate in three.”

Zebadiah took a few seconds before admitting defeat and tipping over his king.

The fourth and final Seraph, Castiel, stepped forward. He watched Michael like a hawk. All of God’s children loved him and wanted to protect him, but Castiel was the most zealous. He’d taken Satan’s place as Captain of the Seraphim Guard, and seemed determined to right the wrongs of his predecessor. He was strong, smart, determined, and ruthless. Everything that Satan was with the addition of absolute loyalty. Castiel would not fall like Satan had.

Michael could sense Castiel wanted to rebuke him for having the chance to kill Satan and failing, but he held his tongue. His fallen children were a tough subject for their Father.

“Thank you for coming.” With a wave of God’s hand the chess board vanished in a puff of white smoke. A snap of his fingers made the room shudder. From the floor a hundred foot globe slowly ascended until it was the dominant feature in the room aside from the throne.

For a moment the perfect sphere was blank, and then information began to flood into it. It molded into a perfect replica of the Earth, and around it a thin shimmering light sprang to light.

“The Veil is weakening,” Their Father wasted no time in confirming their worst fears. “I have spoken with Behemoth. He and his people will do their duty to stem the flow of the Infernals into Eden, but he cannot stop them all.

Michael had met Behemoth, one of the two giant beasts born during the War of Rebellion. He was a massive creature of brute strength and power equal to any archangel. He and his offspring were charged with patrolling the Veil. During peacetime, Michael actually found him to be very pleasant and fun to be around.

<Now because of Satan’s lust for power Behemoth’s entire family is being put in harm’s way.> The fact that it was the purpose of their creation didn’t matter. Michael didn’t want to see more innocents butchered for pointless reasons.

“My Little Ox may not be able to stop them all, but he will be able to tell us where they are headed. We will deploy our resources accordingly and defeat the Infernals.” It was a straightforward plan with anything but straightforward execution.

Tens of thousands, maybe even millions of Infernals were going to be popping up all over Eden. The Host would be spread thin, and there were only so many troops they could deploy to Eden without dangerously weakening Heaven.

“I have secured assurances with Fey.” God referred to the primordial Lord of the Fairy Realms. “He knows I would be displeased if he aides my wayward children, so he has pledged his neutrality and closed his borders.”

That was a breath of fresh air. Nothing had gone according to plan so far.

“Gabriel will reach out to the Elder Races.” God referred to the Remnants of Eden’s prior hierarchy. “They will need to decide what kind of world the wish to live in: a world of peace, or a world of pain.”

Michael hoped the Remnants made the right decision. He had no doubt Satan’s minions would be approaching them as well with promises to take back the realm their Father had taken from them.

<Gabriel has his work cut out for him.> Michael didn’t envy his brother.

“Castor, are your troops prepared.”

“Yes, Father.” Castor bowed. “We have several quick reaction forces ready to deploy once we hear from Behemoth. They will be able to plug the holes within minutes.”

“Good.” God nodded and gazed intently at the map. “Michael, you need to start marshalling the main body of the Host.” More sadness leaked into God’s eyes as he spoke those words. “The battlefield for the future of these realms will be Eden. I will not allow the bloodshed to spill into Heaven and affect the eternal peace these souls have earned.

“The humans…” Michael couldn’t stop the outburst.

“I know.” God waved his hand to silence his general. “We will bring them into the fold in time, but we do not want to spread fear and panic. It will only fuel and embolden the Infernals.”

“Yes.” Michael knew his Father was right. “May I suggest alerting key leaders: the Pope, presidents, and prime ministers of the world’s primary powers? This will allow them to develop plans when Armageddon finally occurs.”

“Armageddon.” God’s face soured at the word. “I never liked the name, and I’m sorry I ever let those thoughts be heard.” He shook his head had rubbed his temple. “Permission granted. Begin alerting key leadership to the coming disasters.”

“Thank you.”

It would be a living hell for Michael to sit in Heaven administrating the preparations for the Divine Host while humans suffered and died by the droves. Now, he could at least give them a fighting chance.

“Father, I beseech you to…” Castiel began.

“NO!” Heaven and Earth rumbled at God’s outburst. “You are not going to lead an attack on Hell. You cannot comprehend the risks of such an operation.”

“But, Father, you cannot win a war playing defense. We must…”

“Enough!” God cut off Castiel again. “I will not hear any more of this. The answer is no.” With the issue closed he dismissed the small war council.

“Ensure you see your sister at the Healing Garden, Michael.” God left those parting words as he vanished into thin air along with Amenadiel and Zebadiah.

Castiel remained as he took up a sentinel position in front of the throne. His stone-cold stare dared Michael to do anything but leave.

“Brother,” he inclined his head to the vigilant Seraph and walked toward the exit.

Time in the Healing Gardens sounded good about now while they were empty. He doubted it would be like that for long.

 

***

 

God reappeared instantaneously in the same Healing Gardens he suggested Michael visit. The æther responded to his presence by rushing toward him. He ran his hand through the air to comfort it like a man would a faithful pet.  Knowing all was well with its Master, the æther dispersed back into the Gardens.

<Everything is not well.> God sighed and stopped himself from pinching his nose in frustration.

Instead, he smiled as the people seeking healing began to congregate. It wasn’t uncommon to see him walking these Garden’s. His æther reinforced them, sped the recovery of his injured children, and was a place for peace of mind in realms continually marked with chaos.

If he was being honest with himself, he was tired and needed these Gardens as much as the injured. He’d been doing this literally since the beginning of time. With each new creation, he hoped things would be better, but they never were. There was always war driven by any number of reasons. That was why he created Heaven in the first place. It was supposed to be a sanctuary of higher thinking, peace, and eternal prosperity. Then his favorite children had rebelled, he banished them from his creation, and ever since then the constant threat of their invasion had haunted him. No amount of power could put at ease a father’s mind when it came to the evil proclivities of his wayward children.

<Not here.> A true smile spread across his face as he found the person he was looking for.

She sat perfectly still on a plain wooden bench overlooking a glistening pool. Fish from the farthest reaches of the cosmos populated the pool and lived in harmony. He could see her eyes following one of the fish as it swam in a continuous circle. Another fish joined it, and they swam in tandem for a short time before breaking apart.

“Hello, Ava.” His words shocked her out of her trance.

“Father…” Adoration crossed her face.

God held out his arms and the young Dominion jumped into them and began to weep. “Shhh…shhhh….it’s ok.” He ran his finger comfortingly through her hair until she’d shed all of her tears. Then he took her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length. “You did so well, Ava, and I am so sorry.” The congratulations and condolence caused a fresh wave of tears that took time to overcome.

“May I…can I see her?”

Ava knew her daughter, Maria, had lived a good life. She’d fought on the side of the angels against the evil in the world. When she died, some part of her must have been drawn to Heaven. That was Ava’s hope. She also knew her daughter’s death had been used to power a trio of ætherial conduits that helped break a Seal and fray the Veil beyond repair.

“In time,” God replied, and Ava cried again.

She might not be able to see her daughter now, but her Father’s statement told her that some part of Maria had surveyed that brutal night.

“Let me see.” God extended his hand palm up.

Ava gingerly raised her partially reformed arm and handed it to her Father. She had lost a lot of ichor and æther in the battle outside Charlotte. Some had been siphoned away by an abomination, most had been expended, and some had just been expelled and absorbed into Eden’s æther. It was a terrible loss, but what really mattered was that she was safe.

“I’m sorry to ask this of you, but you must go back.” God felt her body tighten at the statement. “Bad things are coming, and I need someone who knows the area, and the people to be at the tip of my spear. We cannot let the Infernals take back what Maria fought valiantly to protect.”

“Of course,” she sniffed and wiped her eyes.

“But I will not let you go back empty handed.” He smiled and Ava giggled at the bad pun.

In the last day, God had collected æther from billions of human souls praying for his assistance. He took some of that power and channeled it into Ava. A warm glow gradually spread down her arm. The warmth built until it became painful, and quickly that pain became unbearable. It seared up her arm and into her brain. She screamed and thrashed, but her Father held her tight in his arms.

As quickly as the pain was there, it vanished. She choked out a few breaths and blinked the tears from her eyes. The Healing Gardens æther washed over her and put her at ease.

“I am sorry,” God smiled down at her, “but now you have the means to fight back.”

Ava followed his glance down to her hand. Instead of soft, snow-white skin, her new had glinted metallic gold.

“Oh my god.” She stared openmouthed at the miracle.

God just smiled down at her for a moment before getting up to leave. He had two realms to govern, and despite wanting to, couldn’t hang around in the Gardens all day. She registered him going, but was too engrossed with her new appendage. She knew what it was, she knew the legends surrounding it, but she’d never seen it before.

She was now the wielder of a Hand of God, a powerful Divine weapon bestowed upon champions of her Father in times of crisis. The last recorded one was during the Conquest of Eden, and was rumored to have assisted in slaying several of that realm’s champions.

<Wow.> She didn’t know what to say, or think, or feel; except this had to be some sort of promotion, and her life had just gotten that much harder.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 171

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 <Ugh…I hate Mondays.> Coop groaned as he rolled out of bed.

It was 0530, the normal wake-up time, and reveille was blaring on the speaker system just outside of his window. The problem was, Coop and his team didn’t need to be up at 0530 with the rest of the Company for PT. They were on detail for the next two weeks. It excused them from PT and morning formation at 0900. All they had to do was be at the spaceport by 0700, report to the MP liaison and civilian administrator, and do their assigned tasks.

It also didn’t help that Coop was nursing a none-too-minor hangover. “Shut the fuck up!” He yelled at the clear polyplast window, but the electronic equipment ignored him.

As the Company HI trooper, he got his own room, which was nice. Normally, soldiers shared what they called squad suites. It was made up of three rooms: two were five-person fire-team rooms where the soldiers slept, and the third was an open common area between the two rooms. The Company barracks that sat next to the Company HQ office had ten of these spread over three floors. LT Wentworth had her own room – although Coop was pretty sure she had an apartment off post that she stayed at most of the time –  the XO did live in their room, GYSGT Weitz spent about half of the nights in his, and then there was Coop. He was positive it was not a coincidence that the officers’ rooms were on the opposite side of the building from the speakers while Coop got a front a center seat to the high-pitched blaring horn every morning and evening.

He pressed his palms to either side of his head to drown out the noise until it ended. Then he slid down the side of his bed until his bare ass touched the cold, polished floor. He sat like that for a moment taking deep breaths to fight back the wave of nausea that had seized his gut. After a minute it passed, he shook his head, and stood up. Even if he was up, the beauty of being the only one currently on the floor meant he didn’t have to hustle to the latrine to take his morning shit. He walked out into the hallway in his birthday suit, cherishing the freedom, before going to bomb the porcelain sea.

From there it was straight to the showers where the warm water did a lot to alleviate his hangover symptoms. After that was a quick shave to be within regulations. With the three S’s done, he returned to his room, pulled on his CMU’s and headed out of the building. It was 0600 by the time he got to the Battalion DFAC. He scanned his GIC at the desk where a civilian didn’t even look up from their PAD as he passed. Being here right at the beginning of chow meant all the good shit was still on the racks. If given a choice, he’d still choose the extra sleep time, especially after his weekend.

It was a rare productive one, which translated to him not spending all his time at the Pit or one of the more reputable bars. He couldn’t always show up at the seedy freak show or the MPs would get suspicious and start sniffing around. He was so close to kicking off his latest scheme he couldn’t risk it, so he only spent Friday night ironing out all the details with cat stripper, aka Melissa, while the rest of his team got shit faced and whatever else his cash had bought them.

Saturday, instead of running around all over the place, he split the time between his room and the armory. For his plan with Melissa’s contacts to work, he needed to tweak a few things, and getting the software patch ready had taken him awhile. Altering something on his LACS and then rebooting it back to normal operating status without triggering any of the suits internal security protocols were a pain, and he was a bit out of practice. A V2 wasn’t anything like an air-car, but the same principals applied, so he was able to make it work.

He’d had a close call with the GYSGT, who just happened to show up while Coop was tinkering, but Coop was able to pass it off as dedication to maintaining his armor. The GYSGT bought it – at least that’s what Coop thought – but he’d have to keep an eye on the NCOIC for any sign that he’d caught on. After a long day working on the patch, Coop retired to Sandy’s place for the evening and hadn’t gotten much sleep. Sunday, to alieve any suspicions, he spent his day at the gym chatting up some females, caught a movie with one of those females, and then went to a local bar with the same female, which ended in a prolonged coupling in the restroom followed by stumbling back to his room and passing out.

Coop scanned the chow hall for anyone he knew to sit with, but just about everyone was at PT. None of his team was here, likely opting for more rack time, so Coop settled into a seat with a good view of the front door and ate his real eggs, bacon, pancakes, and breakfast danish. He washed it all down with a glass of OJ, which almost tasted real, before returning his tray to the automated dispenser. The civilian didn’t even lift her head when he left.

With his belly full, and his hangover symptoms cut in half, Coop headed back to the Company armory that sat in the basement of the HQ office.

“Hey, Sarge.” Coop greeted the old-timer NCO who sat in the duro-steel cage between the requesting soldier and a very intimidating-looking vault door. “I’m here for my gear.”

Coop liked the rolley-polley looking NCO. He minded his own business, ran his little twenty-by-twenty meter kingdom efficiently, but allowed some wiggle room – like Coop getting in on the weekend.

“Sign in.” The SGT pointed at the scanner and Coop did as he was told. “Your team ain’t here yet.” The SGT knew the assignments for the day, and Coop’s fire-team was supposed to be issued their gear between 0630-0640 before heading to the spaceport. It was currently 0633.

“Don’t worry, I’ll toss some beds and crack some skulls once I get suited up. They’ll be here.”

“Better be, or I’ll write them up for missing a time hack.” The SGT seemed grumpier than usual this morning.

“I got it, Sarge. Here,” Coop reached into his pocket and tossed a napkin-wrapped donut at the NCO, “I thought you might want this. It sucks getting forced in early.”

The NCO brightened immediately, and all thought of writing up Coop’s team vanished from his mind as he sunk his teeth into the jelly-filled deliciousness. Coop walked passed him and into the armory. All of the Company’s weapons, ammo, big guns, and HI armor were stored in here. He walked all the way to the back where his V2 LACS is sitting in a charging rack. With practiced precision he manually disconnected the power cords, opened the armor, and stepped inside.

The world is pitch black for a second before the system initializes and lines of code begin to stream down his HUD. It takes about two minutes to get everything up and running, and then another thirty seconds for him to toggle through multiple menus and get down into the weeds of the visual display, a cursory check of the coding shows his patch is up and running.

<Everything looks good.> It’s 0638 by the time he exits the vault, and his team is lined up with the SGT for weapons issue.

“Another beautiful day in the Infantry!” Coop announced with a grin behind his armored helmet.

Nickelbaucher nods, but the PFC looks tired. Goldsmith rolled his eyes mid yawn, while Stern was the only one to actually look enthusiastic about their upcoming assignment.

“They just need a light kit. We’re just going to be down the road.” Coop checked his own armor. He had no missiles and no artillery ordinance. His Buss was fully loaded and he had ten thousand rounds in his rail gun. For what they were about to do, he didn’t need anything other than that.

Getting this detail had taken some careful planning and fine manipulation of people. It wasn’t because it was desirable and everyone wanted it. It was the opposite. No one wanted it, so he had to get the job while looking like he didn’t want it. The mess from him killing that fucktard Bradford helped. A few bitch sessions to SSG Hightower about Stern’s incompetence, and pulling the LT’s attention casually to the available details had done the trick.

For the next two weeks, Coop and his fire-team would be doing customs checks at the spaceport. With a chunk of the fleet gone on some mission, they just weren’t able to inspect all inbound traffic as thoroughly as usual. So, the fix was to do cursory scans of inbound traffic as they settled into orbit, and then a hands-on inspection once the ship touched down to unload their cargo. The LT and SSG described it as a team-building opportunity to Coop while he looked appropriately pissed, but in fact, they’d just handed him the opportunity to make thousands.

“We’re set, Corporal.” Nickelbaucher had checked the troops over while Coop was daydreaming about swimming in a pool of money chips.

“Let’s get moving. No mags in the rifle. We’re walking down the street not some Blockie neighborhood.” The soldiers followed his orders and stowed the magazine in their Dragonscale armor’s pouches. Despite the assignment, they had a full combat load complete with grenades for their 40mm M3 attachments.

It was a short walk to the civilian spaceport which sat only a kilometer from the military base on the outskirts of Town Center. The local cops at the gate quickly scanned IDs before ushering them in without another word. They were happy to see the soldiers. It meant less tedious work for them.

The MP liaison was a bored-looking Corporal, while the civilian administrator was a guy in a suit who looked way too happy to be there.

“Welcome!” He beamed and reached out to shake Coop’s hands before realizing Coop could easily palm his whole head. “Thank you for coming.” He instead went for several thankful nods. “We’ve got a full schedule of incoming freighters today. I’ll upload the schedule to your neural networks and we’ll get started immediately.”

The MP brought out four sniffers and handed them to Coop and his men. “Have fun.” Just like that the MP was gone.

“You’ll be handling landing pads one through nine.” The administrator waved them toward the left side of the field.

It didn’t escape Coop’s attention that there were only twelve pads in the whole spaceport. <Fucking awesome.> He took a deep breath and imagined what he’d do with all the cash he’d make over the next two weeks.

They walked out onto the tarmac and stood next to a police crew of three armed with their own sniffers and sidearms. The blowing dust of New Lancashire’s still-being-terraformed atmosphere made seeing more than a hundred meters difficult, so positioning lights of the approaching craft seemed to appear out of nowhere when the first ships of the day fired their positioning thrusters to set down in the middle of the big white circles with their own positioning lights and electronic systems designed to help guide the pilots in through all the crap.

“Let’s get to it guys.” Coop let the way to landing pad one where a modular cargo hauler was setting down. As he approached he pulled out his PAD and typed a quick message.

 

I had fun last night. We should do it again soon. I’m free mostly from one to nine on the weekends, just make sure to message me to see what time works for you. Thanks!

 

He sent the coded message to Melissa’s inbox. For a five percent cut of the profits she was working as the middle woman for this job. Being free from one to nine told her what pads Coop was covering, and asking her to message indicated he wanted to know what pad their customers got assigned to so he could be the one to meet them.

 

Sure thing, Boo.

 

He got the reply less than five minutes later. She was probably just getting off her shift and heading home. He didn’t hear anything else from her for hours, and quickly learned why no one ever wanted this detail.

The spaceport wasn’t large, and it was only rated to handle ships with lightweight tonnage. That meant that all the cargo vessels – from twenty-five thousand tons all the way up to the multi-million ton behemoths – had to shuttle their goods down to the surface of the planet in small doses. It also meant pilots on roundabout flights all day long, and since this was the outer rim of Commonwealth controlled space, the pilots weren’t the cheeriest people in the galaxy. By flight number three they were getting a little testy.

“Are you fucking serious. It’s the same shit from the last two flights!” A bearded pilot steamed and threw his hands up in the air as Coop boarded the modular container and started waving the sniffer around.

The large container had a big GT on the side for Gold Technologies and the manifest stated that the ship was on a Commonwealth commission to provide consumables to the newish colony of New Lancashire from their farm world, Bounty. Since Bounty was at the edge of the Mid and Core Worlds, they’d had a bit of a hike out to York Sector with a few days of travel outside the Alcubierre Launcher network. That meant a big transport ship with over three hundred thousand tons of genetically-patented vegetables sitting in cargo holds. With food stuffs, time was money, and pilots were quickly getting sick of Coop and his team checking each of their holds every time.

“Sit down and shut up.” Coop snapped back. His interactions with this particular pilot were starting to grate his nerves.

The pilot replied in exclusively four-letter words, but Coop’s attention was on the vibrations and soft pinging coming from his armored hatch where he kept his PAD.

 

Eight works for me. I can’t wait to see you soon.

 

“You’re good.” Coop cut the pilot off mid curse and walked down the tail ramp where he waved the heavy equipment on that would unload ten thousand pounds of Bounty spinach in a few minutes. “Nickelbaucher!” Coop called over the team net to the soldier who was currently working pad eight. “Switch with me. If I have to deal with this guy one more time I’m going to rip his head off.”

The PFC had exclusively been dealing with some Mackintosh Shipping Conglomerate vessels delivering machinery, and if he was upset with the request to switch he didn’t say anything. “Roger, Corporal.”

Coop walked a couple hundred meters to pad eight and waited for the blinking lights of a new incoming vessel. Three minutes later, said vessel set down and opened its tail ramp.

The first red flag to a respectable customs agent would be that it was a private ship. Private ships had a much higher chance of being smugglers, pirates, or other nefarious spacers. Coop received their manifest from Air Traffic Control, and even the ATC desk jockeys had flagged the ship for a closer inspection.

Coop quickly toggled to his visual display, entered the command for his personal software update, and hit INITIATE just as a man’s boots appeared on the slip-resistant surface. Coop’s HUD gave a jerk that would look like a minor glitch to anyone watching before going back to normal, except now Coop had a small hidden box screen in the bottom right of his HUD. The two screens were nearly identical, but with one key difference. The faces of the man and his associates walking down the ramp were altered.

Coop’s V2 neural net was wired into ATC, which was wired into the local authority’s databases on wanted criminals throughout the sector and beyond. The facial recognition software automatically ran the faces Coop saw against those databases, and that was what his software patch was focused on. It wasn’t anything fancy, just enough to throw off the software. In the hidden box at the bottom of his head his armor analyzed the system and beeped a warning. A red silhouette encircled the man with the words DETAIN written over his head. As Coop scanned from left to right three other man had the same message stamped over them, but on his big HUD, with their altered faces, they all checked out.

“Good afternoon. Lovely day today.” Coop might have been able to manipulate the HUD’s input and output software, but audio was on a separate feed that he didn’t have the time to manipulate.

“You the guy?” The smuggler asked.

“I’m the customs agent, please follow me aboard.” Coop took a few steps toward the ship and the man’s face contorted in confusion. “Please, Sir,” Coop repeated. “This is just a routine check, I’m sure everything is just fine.” Coop made an OK symbol down low where his 360-degree visual wouldn’t see, and the smuggler finally caught on.

They both walked up the ramp and into the hold. Half a dozen grungy spacers were sitting around, but Coop worked around them. He made sure the sniffer was in stand-by mode and he never looked at the readout as he searched the ship. Since the civilian tech wasn’t linked to his armor it was easy to get around that safeguard.

“Looks like you’ve got about five thousand tons here.” Coop spoke to the smuggler hoping the guy was still picking up what he was putting down.

“More like thirty-five-hundred.” The smuggler grumbled back.

“I’m pretty sure it’s four thousand actually.” Coop’s tone held finality.

“Hmmm,” the smuggler pretended to check an old-fashioned paper manifest. “Yeah, it is four. My mistake.”

“No problem. We’re just about done here.” Coop turned to head back to the ramp. He had no idea what was in the crates all around him, and he didn’t care, what he knew was that he’d just made four grand for a mornings work.

As he walked, he held out his armored hand behind him expectantly. This was the part where trust was required between very untrustworthy people. Melissa had instructed them to pay in thousand-dollar chips. Coop wouldn’t be able to check until he was out of his armor, but he felt four chips being placed in his outstretched hand. The smuggler could stiff him and save a few bucks, but then his pipeline for getting goods into the colony would be cut. It was in his best interest to pay up, but if he was just making a single run then Coop might get shafted. There might only be four bucks on the chips for all he knew.

He had to take a leap of faith. Worst case scenario was that he got stiffed, and he hunted down the smuggler the next time he was on the planet. Making an example of how poor an idea it was to screw with Mark Cooper was always good for business.

Coop and his team worked until 1700 with a short break for lunch not long after he let the smuggler’s goods through. He got out of his LACS under the pretense of stretching and made sure none of the spaceports security cameras saw him checking the pouch where he’s stored the chips. When he looked inside four one-thousand-dollar chips gleamed back at him.

<This detail isn’t going to suck after all,> he thought.

He had this for two weeks, with at least one ship coming in a day. Payment was dependent on ship size, but if all of the ships were in this last one’s range, he was looking at another forty grand in his pocket.

That bought a lot of booze and lap dances. As far as he could see, life was pretty much perfect at the moment.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 170

Eve Berg

Location: Yangon-2, Yangon System, Eastern Block

“Get in formation…ten meters spacing…cammo on…let’s move people,” SGM Queen set their movement conditions and the twenty SPECOPS soldiers hurried to execute.

They were on a time table, but they moved out at a cautious pace. They had to travel down a steep slope right off the bat, and the movement left them horribly exposed. Eve held her breath as the hustled down the incline. The rain was coming down in sheets now, which didn’t help their camouflage. The ability to blend into their surroundings was still going to fool sensors, but all an enemy soldier had to do was look at them with the good old mark-one eyeball and they’d be able to see where the rain was slamming into something solid.

<I’ve got a bad feeling…> Eve immediately throttled that negative thinking. She needed to get her head in the game or she’d end up a whole lot of dead.

So far, a positive was that she was moving near the rear of the formation and on the right side of a wedge spread over a hundred meters. If they made contact, the Force Recon marines up front were going to take the weight of enemy fire before she could get on line. She expected that to happen any second as they made it to the bottom of the hill and pressed into the bombed-out city.

“Keep your eyes peeled, Berg.” The SGM singled her out on a private channel like he knew her mind was wandering.

Their formation quickly disintegrated into a column as they picked their way through overturned air-cars, crumbled buildings, and fires that even this downpour couldn’t extinguish. They hugged the buildings to avoid getting pounded by the rain and giving away their position.

Now that they were in the city, the SGM pushed them with mild recklessness. Eve grimaced every time they came to an intersection and they didn’t post proper security. She was more than willing to run to the front and cover one direction, while another Ranger covered another, and the rest of the element moved through, but they didn’t have time for that.

STRATNET wasn’t a big help either. They had intimate detail of Fourth Brigade’s staging area, and the area surrounding that half of the PDC, but jackshit on this side. They were operating off the small, local networks in their suits, which only extended to line-of-sight. When Eve zoomed out on her HUD it was an ominously small circle inside a vast sea of unknown.

<Well, at least the spray is working.> The nanite spray she’d used on her helmet was working as advertised and no water was distractively dripping into her view.

Because of the recklessness of their advance they made good time. They’d crossed half the distance to the PDC in thirty minutes, but as they got closer they had to slow down. They still had no idea if the Blockie air defense had tracked their Spyder on the way in. Just because they didn’t get shot at didn’t mean the enemy wasn’t watching. A Commonwealth bird landing in their rear was bound to draw some attention, and it only made sense they’d come to investigate.

“Enemy sighted.” The announcement came over the team channel without any warning. “Three hundred meters, dead ahead, and heading straight towards us.”

Eve was in the middle of an intersection when she heard the announcement. She hustled to take cover behind a wrecked air-car in the mouth of an alley. It was a perfect position. The still intact wall of the two buildings covered her from the north and south and the car gave her complete cover and concealment from the east. Her only vulnerability was the road to the west, but two Rangers had hunkered down in it, and had that direction covered.

“I’m counting at least twenty, but they’re moving slowly.” The marine finished the report and STRATNET updated.

Eve watched as the number of red icons kept growing. <They sent a full platoon to look for us.> She grimaced. The good time they’d made didn’t mean shit now.

“Everyone hold for a second.” The SGM sounded calm and collected from where he’d taken cover under the awning of a roofless building’s front doorway. The red and white stripes seemed a lot cheerier than the situation called for.

Eve took the moment to think through the situation. It seemed like the Blockies had seen the inbound Spyder. Why they didn’t take a shot she’d never know, but they’d countered their movement effectively. Despite behind abandoned and partly destroyed, the avenue they were advancing down was the quickest avenue of approach to the large PDC. Eve was willing to bet her paycheck that other platoons were working their way down the less likely avenues. She tried to remember the grid-shaped map, and thought there were at least half a dozen roads leading into this side of the PDC. If her thinking was right, that meant the Blockies were willing to risk an entire company going outside the wire to look for them.

<Why…> realization hit her like a cargo hauler, <…because they can’t see us.>

The Blockies knew something was up.

Eve was about to radio the SGM but his voice cracked over her helmet speakers. “They know we’re here. We’re not going to be able to penetrate as a group.” Despite the bad news, he didn’t sound upset. “Team up with a battle buddy and give me a fire line with fifty meter spacing. Every man and woman for themselves. Get into that PDC and rendezvous here.” A blip appeared on STRATNET inside the PDC. “Get to it people.” The SGM cut the line and people stared moving.

“Let’s go, Berg.” SGT Sullivan rushed past her down the alley with his Buss raised. She immediately fell in beside him and covered the other half of the alley.

She watched on STRATNET as their bubble of awareness expanded as the buddy teams spread out. Since she’d been at the ass end of the formation, they had to hump it to the end of the firing line that now spread a good five hundred meters.

They reached their avenue of approach and immediately continued moving forward. Eve’s heart was pounding, but it had nothing to do with the short run. She’d expended more energy taking a shit than that leisurely jog. It was the fact that she was strung out on the edge of a formation with at least twenty times her number bearing down toward her. When the mission was a stealth incursion the one thing you wanted – no needed – was the element of surprise…and the enemy knew they were coming.

“I’ve got two…four…six…at a hundred meters.” The Ranger SGT stopped counting the enemy as the heads of the Blockie’s armored soldiers turned a corner and started to head toward them.

“Here.” Eve moved toward a relatively untouched building. She tried the door, but it was locked, so she put a little oomph into it. The polyplast snapped and bent in enough to create a small opening. Eve stuck her fingers in and manually yanked open the door.

She’d stopped a battleship’s armored door from slamming into emergency lock down, so this flimsy piece of plastic was nothing. The SGT rushed in and she yanked the door back into position. The rest of the city looked like shit, so she doubted the Blockies would think one wrecked door was suspicious.

The building was three stories, like all the other ones around them, and she and the SGT had no trouble rushing up to the roof. “We leap frog the rooftops until we’re passed the platoon, and then we push forward on foot.” Eve relayed her plan as they jimmied opened the door to the roof.

“Sounds like a…” the SGT looked like he was going to agree, but they stopped as they took a look to their north.

They sat only half a kilometer from the PDC now. Their HUDs showed the shield that arched up at least a kilometer to form a dome that terminated about fifty meters off the ground. That meant it was a strong shield, much stronger than the one Eve had gone through back on Rogue Island. She guessed a level four based on what it had to stand up to.

A twenty-meter duro-steel wall rose between the ground and the edge of the shield. The wall had built in pillboxes with powerful defensive weaponry. From their vantage point, Eve could see swatters spaced every ten to twenty meters on the edge of the wall, and soldiers patrolling alertly. It was a better situation than the side facing Fourth Brigade’s attack, but it still looked like a pain in the ass to get through.

A chorus of BOOMS tore through the air like thunderclaps, and Eve’s attention instinctually shifted. She magnified her HUD and saw vapor trails of orbital strikes cutting through the atmosphere…a lot of them.

The first stage of Fourth Brigade’s battle plan had kicked off. Warship’s in orbit were targeting the PDC with their railguns. The tough duro-steel rounds were punched down through the atmosphere to blanket the shield. It served the purpose of blinding and confusing the shit out of the enemy so the Brigade could move troops into position.

“We need to hurry.” SGT Sullivan tore his attention away as the rounds began to impact the shield in a shower of sparks. Within five seconds it looked like the old Fourth of July on steroids in the sky above the PDC.

“Stay low on your jump in the off chance they can pick us up,” were the SGT’s parting words before he jumped.

He went low, with almost no arch, and did a combat roll for a landing. Both froze for a second to see if the scouting platoon noticed anything. They didn’t. Between the roar of the rain and the railgun rounds striking the shield nobody heard the slight scrape of armor against polyplast, so Eve jumped.

The two Rangers jumped four buildings deep before crawling to the edge of the roof and peeking over. They were fifty meters past the platoon who continued to push outward at a faster pace.

<They want to finish their search and get the fuck out of here.> Eve didn’t blame them. Outside the shield was the worst possible place for them to be right now.

Eve and the SGT hurried down the stairs and emerged on the street parallel to the one the enemy was moving on. A block away the buildings ended and fifty meters of clearing separated them from the PDC’s walls.

“Fuck me.” The SGT mumbled as they reached the edge of that clearing and looked up.

They made sure to stay in the shadow of the buildings, but it didn’t make their task look any less impossible. Within spitting distance, Eve spotted a dozen soldiers manning the wall, two spotters, and a battery of hypervelocity missiles not that dissimilar from the one on her LACS’ shoulder.

“Team, listen up.” The SGM’s voice crackled over TACCOM. “Talked with Fleet upstairs and they’re going to end their bombardment with one final time-on-target bang. It might overload the shield enough in a few places to let some rounds slip through and cause a little chaos. That’s when we’re going to hit the wall. Hit it hard, fast, get the hell over it, and make it to the rendezvous point. Don’t get spotted, out.” He cut the link and left Eve’s eyes to scan the wall.

“I don’t know how…” a loud groan of metal on metal cut her off as a section of the wall slid open about twenty-five meters to their left.

“Well that looks like a perfect…” the SGT’s comment was cut off as a hovering block of armor and destruction poked its nose out of the opening.

A turret as big as a gaping maw swung back and forth, scanning it’s surroundings, before the tank pushed completely out of the opening.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” The SGT cursed while Eve’s mouth just hung open.

Tanks were largely a weapon of the past. With orbital warships, Spyders, and combat drones able to rain down fire support on anything, it didn’t make sense to put that much firepower into an easy target. It was much more economical to have HI troopers with not as much, but still considerable firepower.

<But they’re fucking perfect in a situation like this.>

The Commonwealth still kept some tanks in their inventory, and it looked like the Blockies did too, and they worked fantastic in a defensive situation like this where friendly fire support couldn’t get through the shields. Eve was willing to put a lot of money that Fourth Brigade was going to walk right into the teeth of a ton of those things during their attack.

Eve toggled the command channel and opened a link to the SGM. “You seeing what I’m seeing?” she didn’t catch the SGM’s grumbled cursing.

“Sending it to Fourth Brigade’s HQ. Good spot, Berg, now get over that wall.” The line went dead, and it still left Eve without a plan. She was still thinking when a flood of red icons started heading in her direction.

“Move!” The SGT pushed her through an already broken door as the enemy closed to within a few meters. If not for their cammo they would have been targeted and destroyed, but their V3s did their job and the enemy streamed past them.

There was only a slim piece of polyplast between the two Rangers and a rush of forty Blockie soldiers, but those soldiers didn’t bother to check the busted door, they had other things on their mind.

“They’re pulling back.” The SGT poked his head out of the door when the stampede of metal boots faded. “The tank is covering their retreat.”

Eve joined the SGT and looked at the backs of the Blockie soldiers. It looked like three platoons were falling back from three nearby streets toward the tank and the gate beyond it. The tanks turret swung in a smooth rhythm back and forth. Eve counted the length of two swivels as a plan took shape in her mind.

“How good is the cammo on these things?”

She couldn’t see the SGT’s face, but she saw him shaking his head. “No…no…no…”

Too late. The timing matched up. The platoon from their street was the first one to reach the gate, so their side was clear, and the turret was swinging in the other direction. Eve didn’t wait for the SGT to say anymore. She took off at a sprint to cover the fifty meters.

This was either going to be awesome or fatal.

She crossed the distance quickly with the power of her V3 LACS. She judged the approach as best she could and went into a slide like a baseball player going into home. The last of the troops from another street were streaming past the tank on the opposite side, and if they heard the scrape of her armor against the road they didn’t show it. Half a second later a second slide announced the SGT’s arrival. They both fit comfortably underneath the tank that was hovering a meter above the ground. They took care to avoid the anti-grav thrusters, found good places to grip, lifted themselves up, and secured themselves parallel to the bottom of the tank. With the rain being blocked by the tank’s bulk they were basically invisible.

“You forgot one thing,” the SGT was breathing heavy as adrenaline pumped through his system. “They’re probably going to check under this fucking beast when it comes back in…a visual inspection”

<Shit…> Eve was flying by the seat of her pants with this op, and she didn’t like it.

“Well then, I guess we’ll have to…”

She never got to finish. The biggest BOOM yet filled that air. The automated sensors in her helmet activated to block out the noise as the time-on-target wave of rounds smashed into the shield. She could only imagine what it looked like for Fourth Brigade, but she knew how it affected the tank. Whoever was driving this thing threw it into reverse and darted back underneath the protection of the shield.

The crew never even knew it had two stowaways. They were too worried about saving their own asses from the steel rain falling from above.

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