Two Worlds – Chapter 250

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Coop thought he knew the meaning of the word pain. His life hadn’t been easy up to this point, and he felt he had a solid grasp of the concept. As he opened his eyes in that dark, dry cave in the mountains, he knew he didn’t know what pain was.

Everything hurt…everything. Even his balls had an uncomfortable ache to them that had nothing to do with dreaming about Eve. He grunted and tried to sit up, but the world revolved like someone spun his head like a dreidel, and his stomach leapt into his throat. He would have puked all over his HUD if he had anything in his stomach. Instead, he dry heaved for a solid thirty seconds before a little bit of stomach acid dripped out of his mouth and onto the smartcloth at his neck.

The combat drug kits the LACS released to keep him in the fight were a marvel of medical science. You could be on the verge of death, but it would keep you fighting for an hour, and with a raging hard-on at that. All the adrenaline pumping through your system made you act a little crazy, but that was nothing compared to when it all wore off. Coop checked his IOR and saw he’d been out for nearly sixteen hours.

A VR crash was bad. Going from fighting for your life one second to sitting in a black box the next was jarring to the senses, but you learned to manage it. There was no way to manage the hangover from a combat drug kit, and that was exactly what this was. His body was rebelling against the potent concoction that had ultimately saved his life against the ambushing Windsor Company, but it came with a price.

“Ugh,” was the only sound he could make as he tried for a second to get into a seated position. Again, his head spun, but the stabbing pain in his side kept him from executing the simple maneuver.

His armor squawked a medical warning to him, and he felt the cool spray of nanites in the area of the pain. The V4 had a better integrated medical system in it than his old V2. He’d lost a leg in that one and survived, so this suit would definitely keep him alive.

He pinged the medical alerts he was getting and grimaced. A few broken limbs, first degree burns on his side where his armor had been breached, and one of his lungs looked like it had been fried a bit, which explained why it was difficult to breath.

<Better than dead,> he reminded himself as he fought to sit up, and barely managed it.

He was alive, but combat ineffective, so of course that’s when he suit picked up nearby movement. The cave he in wasn’t very large. It was less than fifty meters from the opening to the back wall, and he’d curled up to lick his wounds off to the side of the entrance. A rock jutting out of the wall gave him good cover and concealment, so he used that as he picked up his buss and…his hands groped the ground around him but felt nothing.

 <I lost my weapon,> Coop couldn’t believe it. <Fuck!> His odds of surviving another encounter with a Windsor patrol went from slim to shit.

He still had his pistol in his leg holster, so he pulled the puny peashooter out and made sure one of his nano-blades was easily accessible. <At least I’ll be able to gut one of these assholes before they take me down.> He promised himself he’d make the fuckers work.

The crunch of rock under something heavy was his first sign that company was close. He readied himself and begged the LACS for more drugs to help him get to his feet. The system beeped back a refusal. He didn’t have a chance to ask why.

A hulking metal figure stepped into view while its weapon swept the cavern. Coop aimed for the head and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. The pistol just beeped defiantly at him, just like his armor had.

<You’ve got to be…> he paused as the drug-infused thoughts finally got organized. Then he sighed with relief and lowered his weapon.

All the Commonwealth weapons had friend-and-foe designators tied to STRATNET and whatever new interface the IORs were using. Coop couldn’t fire on the man in armor because they were a friendly, and since the rebels on this planet probably hardly had a pot to piss in, much less a V4 LACS…

{Howdy,} he sent a short-range broadcast to the other LACS. {Welcome to my humble abode.}

{Damnit, it’s you, Cooper,} GYSGT Cunningham’s voice spoke into his mind.

{Nice to see you too, Gunney,} he matched her sarcasm with some of his own.

{Give me a SITREP.} She wasn’t in the mood to banter, so he quickly download the shitshow the last twenty-four hours of his life had been.

{Shit,} she must have finally got to his medical status because she slung her weapon and rushed over to him.

{I feel about as bad as I look,} he wagered a guess he didn’t look so hot.

{You look worse than usual,} a video stream from the GYSGT’s IOR popped onto his HUD. It showed Coop’s side, and he had to try really hard not to vomit up more bile.

His armor was a mess of blackened, warped metal, and underneath it, charred shin and bone. He actually saw when his V4’s medical system kicked in and a puff of spray exited the armor and onto his wounds. It acted as antibiotics and topical anesthetic to keep the pain down, but to really get fixed up, he’d need proper medical attention.

{What did you do, fight off the entire Windsor occupation force?} She asked, as she evaluated his wound and how it impacted her plan.

{Nah, just a Company,} he shrugged, which elicited a wince. {I’m also pretty sure they nabbed Mike earlier.}

The GYSGT just nodded and made a waving motion over her shoulder. A squad of regular grunts swept into the cavern. Judging by their ragtag looks, Cooper guessed they were the rebel forces the SRRT was supposed to link up with. The GYSGT exchanged some words with them and a few ran back out while the others stood guard. After watching them for a second, Coop didn’t have high hopes for their already fucked mission.

Coop saw a bunch of untrained farmers. A few actually had modern weapons. He noticed some submachine guns the team had strapped to their armor with the intention of bestowing upon the rebels, but the modern, compact weapons didn’t make them intimidating. He was sure he’d still be able to waste all of them without getting to his feet. They basically had no armor. A few wore what might be centuries-old flak jackets, and they all seemed to be wearing headgear that was somewhere between a baseball cap and a helmet, but wouldn’t stop a well-thrown rock from doing serious damage. Most of the squad was equipped with the shotgun he’d seen on the farmer’s daughter when he first arrived.

<We’re screwed?> he thought, but didn’t voice that aloud to the people helping him.

{We’re going to move you by vehicle back to headquarters,} the GYSGT explained. {Once they’re we’ll patch you up and figure out our next move.}

Coop knew the only logical move was to send a tight-beam to Argo telling them everything was FUBAR and get orders from someone higher up the chain. He didn’t want to stay on this planet any longer than he had to.

<But Mike.> his conscious reared its ugly head, and he sighed with frustration. Thankfully, the GYSGT didn’t see any of his inner turmoil.

Since none of the locals could even pick up one of his limbs, it all fell to the GYSGT. She handled it easily enough with her LACS.

{You gonna carry me across the threshold, Gunney? I have to warn you I’m in no shape to put out right now.} He laughed at his own joke, which turned into a cough.

The GYSGT just shook her head and didn’t dignify him with a response. She emerged from the cave to see a big truck full of raw ore. It was pretty good cover for moving around in this area, and it was even better when the locals moved aside a few big chunks to show that an open space was concealed at the center. Not only did that hide them from aerial view or casual observers, but the magnetics of the ore would probably throw off the Windsor’s ability to detect IOR transmissions at short range.

The GYSGT unceremoniously dropped Coop’s ass on the metal flatbed, and pushed him into the hidey-hole. She followed behind him along with the two rebels with the submachine guns. The rest of the squad hopped into the cabin at the front of the rig and drove off.

“Want to tell me what the hell happened?” Coop asked over his external speakers. He quickly briefed the GYSGT on the Windsor’s abilities to track nearby IORs.

“That fits,” she admitted, as she switched to audio. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened, but I’m guessing some kind of scrambler device.”

The suggesting made Coop shudder. He didn’t like being chopped up at the molecular level in the first place. That someone can scramble him after that was unnerving.

“We do the same thing to stop transmissions and communications in sensitive areas, so it only makes sense that the Hegemony has got some tech to stop people from Splitstreaming right into top secret facilities. The Windsor’s seem to have it while we don’t.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Coop grumbled.

The GYSGT ignored his bitching and continued. “I’m the only one that appeared at the LZ. The only other person I heard from was Sullivan, and he’s waiting for us back at HQ. Everyone else was out of range, but I’ve been doing patrols and trying to extend my range to pick up other signals. I was on my way to check on Mike’s signal when all hell seemed to break loose. I was able to ambush a small Windsor contingent from the battle and interrogate them. After that, it was a matter of checking all these little caves for you. Thankfully, the locals have a better lay of the land than the enemy.”

“Well thanks for finding my ragged ass.” Coop meant it. If she hadn’t found him, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t have been able to leave the cave. “So, what’s the plan?”

“Same plan, different day. We still need to scout this place and gather intel before the fleet arrives to take the planet back.” She kept her voice low. She clearly didn’t fully trust the locals either. “It’ll just be harder now that the enemy knows we’re here and already has at least one prisoner. Now we need to figure out how to get our people back and fuck up their day at the same time.”

Coop was onboard, but he doubted he’d be able to do a lot in the short term. He just hoped the local docs were up to the task of stitching him back together so he didn’t look like Frankenstein. It was always beach season somewhere and he had a hot girlfriend to impress.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 249

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Coop might not have as much combat experience as the SGM or GYSGT. He didn’t even have as much as Eve, but he sure as shit wasn’t stupid enough to just walk into an unknown location, in the middle of enemy territory, without doing some recon.

When he made it within a few kilometers of Mike’s IOR signal, it became clear the other SRRT member had sought shelter in a small town at the foot of the mountains. Their planned LZ, and current rendezvous, was a similar town to the east, so Coop thought the local population might be sympathetic to the rebel cause.

<I’m not willing to bet my life on that.> He thought as he lay prone about a kilometer away. His camouflage was activated and he was scanning the area with his passive sensors. So far everything seemed to check out.

He’d read the term ‘one horse town’ in a book, or he’d seen it in a holo before, but this town seemed to fit the bill. It was clustered along the only road in and out of the place, and was only a kilometer from outskirt to outskirt. The buildings and homes didn’t extend more than a block or two from the road and they went all the way up to the foot of the nearest mountain. With his Buss’ scope on high magnification, he could just make out the entrance to the mine in the distance.

He checked his IOR readings with what he was seeing with his own two eyes. Judging by that, Mike was holed up near the mine. Coop could make out a few natural terrain features that a V4 could hide in with camouflage, but if Mike had been hiding all day his battery was probably shit now. Among all the other crap the SRRT members were carrying was a portable recharger for their LACS. It would take a day to do the job the cradles on the ship could do in an hour, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Fighting the Windsor’s in his skivvies was not an option. He’d seen how well that worked out for the grunts on New Lancashire.

He watched and waited for a few hours. Night was falling, and the planet’s natural darkness would be the best way to conceal his approach.  Finally, after hours of nothing aside from miners returning home – or to the bar – and no readings from his scans, he contacted Mike.

{I think I have eyes on your location.} He didn’t bother to announce his identity. There was only one person in the area who could be making contact.

{Coop? That You?} Mike replied. He sounded scared to Coop.

<Suck it up, big guy.>

{I’m going to be coming in at your six o’clock. Keep an eye out for anything from your nine to three.} Coop’s plan was to set security, figure out their supply situation, and then start heading to their rendezvous. With Mike’s V4A load, he had twice as much shit to help in their negotiations with the natives.

{I’ll be waiting.} Mike cut the transmission.

Something tugged at Coop’s memory, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Despite everything coming back as all clear, he still felt uneasy. His gut was rumbling, and he felt like he was going to have the shits, which was a natural sign of his paranoia.

<Can’t just leave Mike even if this turns into a shit show. I can just be as prepared as possible.>

Coop wasn’t going to cart all his crap down to the town with him, so he started to strip the gear until he looked like his lean, mean, fighting machine self. He secured the rest with a cammo-net. Someone else would literally have to step on it to find the stash. Since he doubted anyone would be aimlessly roaming these hills at night, he thought the area was secure. Hefting his Buss to his shoulder, he moved out.

Trying to cover three hundred and sixty degrees by yourself was nearly impossible, but Coop had trained for times like these. He used the environment and his surroundings to cut down his profile as much as possible. That, matched with his active camouflage, made him nearly invisible. He crept through the outskirts of town. Despite all that humanity was technologically capable of, he couldn’t fool the family dogs along his path. They barked and jumped against fences as he passed, but he didn’t pay them much attention. It would be wise to eliminate the noise marking his progress, but he wasn’t a monster. He had no problem putting down an asshole human, but killing an innocent animal was the stuff of sociopaths.

As he passed the last fenced plot of land there were several hundred meters of open space between that and the next cover. The next cover was a small depression that Coop was fairly sure Mike was curled up in. It was only meter and a half deep, and was meant more as a drainage ditch for something farther up the hillside, but if Mike came down in this area as unexpectedly as Coop had at the farm, this was the best thing he could find in a pinch.

He took a final look around to make sure the coast was clear before sprinting to his target. It took him only a handful of seconds to slide into the depression like a baseball player sliding into home. He dropped the meter and a half into the ditch, but thanks to his bulk, it barely covered the top of his head.

{Mike I’m here. Ping me.}

{Coop? That you?}

{Of course it’s me. Who the fuck else would it…} the rumbling paranoia in Coop’s stomach suddenly dropped into his asshole. He had to pucker up to avoid the shits. {Ahhh shit.} He groaned just as the space around him was flooded with light.

Now he knew why he’d been feeling uneasy. The transmissions he’d been getting from Mike were identical, as if someone was playing them back to him. Coop would have slapped himself for being such an idiot, but he was too busy bringing his Buss into position to deal with whatever the threat was.

“This is Captain Wright of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines, you are completely surrounded. Throw down your weapons and you will be treated with the same dignity and respect as your captured compatriot. Resist and die.”

<They have Mike. Well there goes our mission.> Coop cursed as he searched for options. Thankfully, his paranoia had led him to prepare for such a situation. Well…not a situation as shitty as this one, but it would have to do.

He patched into a small drone he had flying overhead. It was about the size of a pencil, but the resolution it produced was awesome. The moment he connected and took in the data there was the buzz of automatic weapons fire and the feed went black. Since he was using his IOR to link with the drone, it confirmed to him that the Windsor’s had the ability to track IOR communication. <At least at close ranges,> he added. He’d talked to the Mike from the farm, and the royal marines hadn’t descended on his ass then.

While losing the drone was a blow, it wasn’t unexpected. Battlefield drones tended to not last long in conventional combat, but it served its purpose. He now had a snapshot of the enemy forces arrayed around him.

<Shit,> he mumbled. It didn’t look good.

Captain Wright probably had an over-strength company at his disposal. Coop saw snipers and heavy weapons posted on a perimeter of rooftops. A mortar team looked like it had set up shop behind him on the high ground. He bet that was where the good captain was as well. The rest of the troops held a tight perimeter around Coop to keep him from escaping.

The only bit of good news was that he didn’t see any HI or those god-forsaken mechs anywhere. This was a straight infantry company, and he could work with that. He double-checked his battery, made sure his Buss was good to go, and toggled into his HUD’s main menu.

With the help of the new battlefield AI, he planned his next move. Even if he didn’t have a good picture of where some of the troops were, the AI deduced probabilities with him of positions and troop strengths. He knew he couldn’t take the projections as gospel, but they were better than blind guesswork. After a few minutes of calculations and inputs, he was ready to go.

“This is your final warning!” Captain Wright had been talking all along, but Coop hadn’t been listening. “Surrender now and you will be treated appropriately. If I have to come in there and dig you out then it will not be pretty.”

Coop couldn’t help but chuckle. The Captain was trying to threaten him in his overly proper accent. It didn’t come off as genuine malice, and besides, he was about to ruin the good Captain’s day.

With everything set. He braced himself and hit the execute button. A burst from his IOR sent out the instructions. As expected, the Captain rapid-fired orders to his troops when he detected the transmission, but by then it was already on. A few kilometers away, the cammo-netting was ripped to shreds as the mortar tube Coop had set up as his contingency rapid fired its entire thirty-round magazine. At the same time, Coop’s own 250mm tube spewed out EW and smoke rounds like its life depended on it.

Soon, the area was filled with shouts and confusion as the marines lost their electronic locks on Coop’s position. They also had trouble seeing with their own eyes, so they did the logical thing, and fired at his last known position. Only a few of the snipers and heavy weapons had a good angle on him from their elevated position, which was why they were hit by the incoming mortar rounds first.

While all of this was happening, Coop was hunched over and sprinting for his life down the drainage ditch. His AI had computed the best path to take to avoid most of the marine’s arsenal, and it hypothesized he had a thirty-three percent chance of making it out alive.

<Better than nothing.> He breathed heavily as rounds started to fly all around him. The heavy weapons got off a few shots before the mortars collapsed the roofs they were stationed on, and turned the houses into raging infernos.

Coop saw their plasma-tipped rounds splatter explosively against his shield. It dropped precipitously when those big rounds hit, but he was still good to go. He was still running when the ground bucked beneath him and sent him sprawling forward. The marine’s mortars were finally getting in the game and they were peppering the area around where he had been hiding. He was a solid hundred meters away now, and out of the kill zone, but that didn’t stop the earth’s complaining from throwing him on his face. He didn’t let it slow him down. He couldn’t. It was move or die.

After executing complicated avoidance programs, Coop’s own 250mm shells started to rain down on the enemy mortar position. His AI informed him the Captain had deployed swatters, but it was clear he only had one in his tool kit. He was using it to protect himself and his most powerful weapon, but that left the rest of his men exposed.

Now, a hundred and fifty meters from his original position, Coop stopped, went prone, and fired off five quick missiles from his launcher. The rounds streaked straight down the ditch to his original position before arching up, away, and toward the unprotected troops. The Captain’s mortar’s retargeted on where the missiles had ached up, and by then Coop was already sprinting again and putting more distance between himself and where the enemy thought he was. The heavy weapons on the rooftop tried to save their own asses as the missiles dove toward them. Two were successful and two weren’t. More houses on the edge of the one-horse town collapsed as powerful explosives obliterated the structural supports.

Coop had no idea if the hits were killing the enemy troops, since they probably had some shielding, but he didn’t have to kill them to take them out of the fight. He just needed to rob them of the high ground. Regular rounds were starting to chew up the ground around the ditch, but he didn’t pay them any attention. The ones that made contact with his shield were a simple inconvenience. They wouldn’t even penetrate his armor.

At close to three hundred and twenty five meters from his original position, he popped out of the ditch and sprinted toward the town. The Captain was still blind firing his mortars into the smoky, EW-filled haze and didn’t have a lock on him. Coop knew this part was critical, so he poured on the speed.

He was halfway across the open ground when someone spotted him. The rounds that leapt out to meet him were regular and they harmlessly impacted his shield. He didn’t know another heavy weapon had acquired him until a three-round burst of heavy ordinary slammed into his side. His shield held…barely, and his HUD flashed a proximity alert of incoming indirect fire. Coop did what he was trained to do: he activated the ES feature to bond his armor tighter together, he made himself as small a target as possible, and he put all the power he could behind a final leap. He was only twenty meters from the nearest house, so he said a quick prayer to whatever war god that was listening to help him to safety.

His prayer was answered…kind of. He was being hit from three different directions at once. Small arms fire from in front, heavy rounds meant to degrade shields and pierce armor from the flank, and finally the mortars that tried to take him up the ass. The ‘kind of’ part was him being just at the edge of the kill zone when the mortar’s hit. The Captain’s fire mission was danger close, but Coop counted on him being a good officer and not wanting to drop fire on his own troops. He rode the blast, taking damage along the way as it blew out the front wall of the building. It didn’t collapse that structure, or he’d be totally fucked. Instead, he was only partially fucked.

“Owww,” he groaned as he rolled over and tried to get to his feet. His shield was reading zero and his battery had dropped to fifty percent. His side was numb, which meant something had gotten through the armor and damaged his nerves, or something had gotten through and the painkillers were dulling those nerves. He hoped for the latter. He struggled to his feet and felt an uncomfortable twinge in his lower back. Thankfully, a combat cocktail was dumped into his system by the AI because he was not alone. It registered a full squad of marines getting to their feet as well.

<Blades hot,> Coop reacted on autopilot. his nano-blade sang through the air as he started to cut down the unlucky men. Two had lost limbs before the others figured out what was going on. They started firing blindly into the confines of the house. Dust, debris, and smoke obscured everything, but even then, they still scored some hits. Luckily, they just didn’t hit any damaged segments, and the scales did their job. In fact, their blind firing led Coop to them. He downed half the squad before they started running out of the missing front wall.

The drugged-up killer in Coop wanted to chase them and end this fight, but that was suicide. He needed to get out of here before the Captain didn’t have anything holding him back from dropping the house on top of him. He still turned back toward the gaping hole and fired off another wave of micro-missiles to cover his retreat. The AI was using old data at this point, but the spread would keep the marines busy.

While they dealt with that, Coop snuck out the opposite side of the building and hauled ass back to his stash with the camouflage activated. It didn’t serve much point in a fight because it was easy to trace back the origin of his fire, but even only partially operational after the damage it took during the battle, it helped him get to the stash

Unfortunately, another squad of royal marines had been dispatched to deal with the off-site mortars after they wreaked havoc on the perimeter. It was more unfortunate for them than Coop when he snuck up on them and started putting his blade through their guts. Unlike the last squad, this one had nowhere to run. A couple still managed to escape because Coop needed to grab his shit and bounce.

He couldn’t take everything. It would take ten minutes to layer everything like when leaving Argo, so he only took the necessities: extra ammo, the recharger, portable shield generator, basically anything that would prolong a fight against these assholes. He wasn’t even able to get everything before his HUD squawked about incoming ordinance. He still got his ass singed as he escaped, and the rest of the gear was thoroughly wrecked.

The combat drugs kept him going for another five clicks before he reached his threshold. He knew the crash was coming, and he needed to find to find cover and concealment quickly. The mountain was full of little nooks and crannies, and he found one that would work just as the fatigue caught up with him.

He passed out with thoughts of what to do next on his mind. <Is the rendezvous compromised? Did they capture the rebel leaders with the intel Mike had on him? Should I rescue Mike? Where the hell is everyone else? Is Eve ok?>

He passed out without answers.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 248

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Coop crouched down below the stalks and sighed. He thought they were corn, but he wasn’t sure. This was the first time he’d been on an actual farm or seen food that wasn’t an end product of a PHA ration or military chef.  He wondered if all the rumors about farmers’ daughters being easy were true.  <Focus!> he chided himself. He was in enemy territory and he shouldn’t be thinking about food and women. He needed to get to work. <I need to get back to Eve…and the rest of the team.>

He activated his IOR, and his military-level master authorizations got him into every civilian system within radius. He needed to build a picture of where he was so he could figure out how to get from Point A to Point B without getting killed. <I should have paid better attention during the briefing,> he reluctantly realized as he puzzled together information.

Harper’s Junction was a standard planet. There was nothing special about it. It was technically a junction system, but it was a junction system at the end of the line, which didn’t lead anywhere interesting. It didn’t export any important Commonwealth products, so it held no special value to the government. Its main export, if you could call the pittance an export, was raw material from its asteroid belt, but the refineries had been scuttled by whatever company owned it when the Windsor’s took the system. Essentially, Harper’s Junction was pretty much the same as Earth had been before spreading to the stars: self-sustaining, somewhat isolated, and with mindsets that matched those circumstances.

<Thirty million isolationists.> Coop grumbled. <The million-dollar question is: how did the Windsor’s win them over if these people don’t like foreigners?> Coop wondered, but was pretty sure he already knew the answer. <They made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.>

He shook his head and stopped thinking about the macro-political situation. He needed to get back to thinking about his survival. From what he could gather from the civilian systems, he was in the middle of a large farming complex in the capitol city’s agricultural district. The district was a crescent moon shape covering thousands of square kilometers to the city’s west. West was the direction he needed to head, away from the city. He needed to make it out of the farms, into the small foothills before the western mountains that formed the spine of the small continent, and into the small mining towns that dotted that area. That was where the resistance to the Windsor’s occupation was headquartered. Not in any major city.

He looked in front of him where he could barely see the five-thousand-meter peaks in the distance. Covering that distance was somewhat daunting, but he didn’t have much choice. He quickly checked his suit’s battery to find it was still at one hundred percent before starting out.

He didn’t get far. The program running the farmland must have initiated some alert when he arrived. It was probably meant to identify vermin and other pests that infested the fields; definitely not HI troopers.  He’d only made it half a kilometer when a wheeled vehicle popped over a nearby hill. He was already moving in a crouched position, so it didn’t see him right away. Unfortunately, his massive armor made a trail a blind man could follow.

<Shit.> He patched into some of the roadway cameras to see the vehicle come to a halt.

It kicked up a cloud of dust that obscured everything until a gust of wind cleared the area. What was left were two young men, a young woman, and an older man.

<Farmer’s daughter!> Coop couldn’t help but laugh, but it was cut short when the woman hefted a weapon onto her shoulder. <What is…?>

His IOR caught a picture of the weapon, referenced it against the neural net’s database, and popped a 3-D hologram into Coop’s vision. What the woman had was a two hundred-year-old riot gun. Coop pulled up the specs to see what he was dealing with, and he quickly realized he had nothing to worry about. The weapon was supposed to cover a large area with projectile pellets that weren’t even EM accelerated. It was a great tool to kill unwanted rodents, but it wouldn’t even scratch his LACS polymorphic paint.

<Duh,> Coop almost face palmed at the obvious. He could get out of all this by activating his armor’s stealth features. He felt a little stupid for not thinking of it sooner, but in his defense, his old V2 didn’t have the capability, and his last V4 had been disabled by aliens before he really got to use it. <The only problem is my trail.> He’d have to take a risk there, but it was doable.

He had audio from the road’s sensors, and the old man, the father to the younger three, was giving them instructions on where to check. Coop knew it was going to be suspicious as hell when they found the huge path he’d trudged through their field, but there wasn’t anything he could do now. The only thing he could do was make sure he wasn’t at the end of that path.

He hit the feature on his HUD that activated his camouflage and disappeared from view. Then he bent his legs, waited for a second when they weren’t looking in his direction, and jumped. He aimed for a shallow arc because the last thing he wanted was to be exposed for too long. Stealth or no stealth, he didn’t like the idea of being in the open air any longer than necessary. Thankfully, the camouflage worked as advertised. The group of farmers didn’t even look over as Coop sailed a good two hundred meters before falling back to the ground. His mass made landing an inevitably raucous experience, but he executed a combat role and tried to destroy as little of the crop as possible. With that completed, he went silent. He looked, listened, and felt through his network of sensors for any sign that the farmers were closing in.

“Aw hell!” He heard the yell a few hundred meters away, which meant they’d found his original trail.

Coop didn’t need to draw a weapon. He could dispense of the farmers with his bare hands, but the last thing he needed to do was draw more attention to the area. If a family went missing, the mother would call the authorities, who would probably end up informing Windsor’s agents, and that would bring a shit storm down on Coop. On top of failing his mission, he could be captured.

The best thing was for the farmers to write it off as an animal wandering through their field, or a piece of debris falling from orbit after the space battle weeks ago. Once they left, Coop could be on his way.

The thought had barely left Coop’s brain when the farmer’s daughter stepped into the small clearing his landing had made. <Shit.> Thankfully, his LACS was a machine and could stand perfectly still when ordered to. Not even a stalk swayed because of him.

She turned three hundred and sixty degrees with her weapon at the ready. She scanned the area for signs of life, and was confused when she didn’t find anything.

<She’s cute,> Coop passed the time by studying her.

She had disheveled, straw-colored hair with freckles that really popped on her light skin. She was probably around Coop’s age, but she looked a decade older. Despite time and technology, farming was still a rough business: early mornings, late nights, and a lot of tough, manual work. That showed in the daughter’s face and physique. She looked strong, and more than capable of dealing with something eating her corn. The problem was, she wasn’t ready for Coop.

The confusion didn’t leave her face as she called for her father. The man and his sons appeared a few minutes later to scout the same area. It was a tense few minutes, but they eventually concluded what Coop wanted them to. The farmer stated to his kids that some debris must have fallen from orbit and skipped across the field. That’s why they weren’t seeing animal tracks or signs of the crop being eaten. The daughter rightfully pointed out that there would be more damage if something hit the ground at terminal velocity and started skipping across the field, but that father waved her off. He wanted to keep things simple, and possibly avoid bringing any more attention to his property from the new planetary rulers. The capitol city nearby might be under the Windsor’s control, but that didn’t mean everyone was happy about it. Most people probably just wanted to be left alone.

With the issue decided, the farmers left, but the girl gave the clearing one last glance over her shoulder before departing. Coop waited another few minutes before he started moving.

<That was close.> He’d never gone to SERE school, something the SGM was going to rectify when there was time. As far as Coop was concerned, real world experience was going to teach him more than some scenario.

He deactivated his camouflage because it ate at his battery, and started moving again. He had a long way to go. It took him the rest of the day to get out of the agricultural district, but he didn’t have to evade any more farmers. He made sure to get into the crop’s systems before he entered a field, disable them as he passed, and then reactivate them when he was clear.

He was passing between two small hills, paralleling the road, but still under cover, when his IOR lit up with an incoming message.

<About time.> Coop hit accept and his IOR decoded the feed to ensure it was friendly. When it did, Mike’s voice popped into his head.

{Coop? That you? Shit, man, I thought I was the only one who made it.}

{Someone fucked up,} Coop replied. {I’m headed to the rendezvous, what is your location.}

{I was dropped into a cave with no entrance or exit. I had to blast my way out. A couple locals showed up, but I was able to evade them.}  It sounded nearly identical to what happened to Coop. If he lived through this, he was going to have a word with Gold and Aiko. They were the ones who fucked up.

There was a soft ping and Mike’s location illuminated on his HUD. Coop still had a trek to get to his teammate, but it was on the way to the rendezvous.

{Just sit tight and I’ll meet you there.} Coop radioed.

{I’ll be waiting.} Mike cut the line and Coop felt better about his chances. After all, he didn’t want to walk into a meeting with these local resistance leaders alone.

<Hey, the rest of my team didn’t make it, but you’ve got me and a few supplies to fight your rebellion,> wasn’t the best opening line of a negotiation. Coop was sure they would view him as the lesser of two evils, the evil they knew, but still evil nonetheless.

That was for future Coop to worry about. Right now, he needed to get to Mike’s position and avoid detection by the locals and Windsor’s in the process.

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