Two Worlds – Chapter 264

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

“All subjects must report immediately to their assigned shelter . . . All subjects must report immediately to their assigned shelter . . .” the message blared over the city’s emergency systems.

It had been going out for the better part of three hours, but that hadn’t made the madness in the streets any better. On some level, Coop felt sorry for the people of Harper’s Junction. This was the second time in only a handful of months they were being invaded. That sucked.

<But on the other hand…> Coop watched a man and woman plow over an older woman in their rush to the nearest shelter. They didn’t even stop to see if she was ok.

He tried not to think what he’d do in their situation. If he was in their situation he’d still be a Rat back on Earth, which would probably mean it was a free for all to get high, drunk, and fuck until whatever calamity hit them. <At least these people are actually following instructions,> which was a good thing. He had orders to keep civilian casualties as low as possible.

“Listen to that,” Sullivan came up to stand next to him. “Subjects,” he made air quotes with his fingers.

It was a subtle change in the announcement, but it personified a critical difference between the Commonwealth and Windsor’s. To the Windsor’s, people were subjects to be ruled. To the Commonwealth, people were citizens. <Well…> Coop knew well that not all people were citizens. People had to earn their citizenship and the rights to participate in the Commonwealth electoral process, but they still didn’t treat people who hadn’t done their suffrage service as subjects.

“Quit talking and load up,” the SGM was across the room, but he spotted the two SGT’s dawdling with drill-sergeant precision.

Sullivan quickly obeyed, but Coop hesitated. He’d been putting this off as long as possible. GYSGT Cunningham’s V4A –at least it was an A and not a B so there wasn’t a steep learning curve – sat against the wall. He’d spent time integrating with it, and overriding all the captured NCO’s preferences with his own. It felt like he was violating her, and not in a good way. This was her armor. Her second skin. For him to just take it was just…

He shivered as he pushed the emotions aside and started to get in. It was still a bit of a squeeze. The GYSGT was smaller and less bulky than he was in most places, and in other areas there were some big differences. What he really needed to do was get in it and move around a bit so it could conform to his shape. Unfortunately, when someone was on the down low, in a penthouse apartment, on a hostile world they didn’t run around in HI armor.

The armor closed behind him and his IOR linked with the machine. His HUD popped up as he shifted uncomfortably and started to run start-up diagnostics. The crotch area was way too tight. He felt like he was going to get a hernia just by walking. In contrast, the chest area was way too open. He knew from his first few steps he would fall forward a few centimeters until the malleable carbon-tubing weave adjusted. The seesawing motion would only worsen the sensation of having his balls shoved back inside him.

“Coms check,” the SGM said over TACCOM. They had direct line of sight, so they all felt the tight beams coms should be undetectable by the enemy. Their IOR coms were going to stay offline for the time being. “Loosen up, Cooper. Your vitals are spiking.”

“That’s because something is driving a spike into my nuts, Sergeant Major,” Coop was gingerly taking a few steps around their base of operations. He felt the nausea building with each step until things finally started to shift. The chest sucked in to provide a familiar snug fit, while the crotch area conformed to his junk.

“Better?” The SGM was probably shaking his head inside his own suit, but Coop didn’t care. The V4 didn’t have a death hold on his nards anymore. On top of that, all his startup diagnostics came back green.

“Good to go, Sergeant Major, green on everything except battery. Amber on that.” If the battery wasn’t at one hundred percent it was automatically amber instead of green. Since they didn’t have anything but portable solar chargers, charging up the suits was time-intensive. After the fighting the GYSGT had been in, her power had been pretty depleted. It had been charging up over the last few days, but was only sitting at eighty-nine percent right now.

<Hopefully enough to get the job done,> it was all Coop had, so it would have to do.

“Everyone in position?” The SGM’s question went to the resistance captain that had been assigned to them. Coop was glad to see Masha was somewhere else, but the new captain looked like he was cut from the same cloth.

The captain gave a thumbs up. With the remaining SRRT good to go, all they had to do was wait for the cavalry.

<Hurry up and wait,> Coop sighed after an hour and a half had passed. It was a military tale as old as time. The only thing to peak his interest was the cops swinging by to make sure the building was clear. Since the police force was tasked with checking to make sure the whole city had evacuated to the shelters, all they did was run a bioscan with the building’s sensors. They didn’t have the time or manpower to do a visual search. Since the rebels had hacked those sensors weeks ago, the cops came up empty and moved on. As boring as all this was, Coop knew it could turn into pants-shitting terror in no time.

“I’m getting a slew of orders going out over the local net,” the SGM suddenly perked up. “Their cordoning off ground and air space. They’ve got the locals keeping their distance…and…this is it. EXECUTE EXECUTE!”

Coop was taken by surprise, but his body responded. He knew his part in all of this. A few steps behind the SGM, but still ahead of Sullivan, Coop put his LACS into a sprint straight toward the window. The rebels were already making for the stairs, but the SRRT team would take the quick way down.  The SGM lowered his shoulder against the shatter-resistance polyplast of the high-rise loft and slammed straight through it. He flipped over in the air to orient himself feet first as he plummeted toward the ground. Coop and Sullivan followed in his wake by simply hopping into the open air.

They needed to fall and they needed to fall quick if they didn’t want to get locked on by the Windsor’s anti-air. It was unlikely the military units preparing for the invasion had their targeting suits aimed inside the city, but their Palace’s surely were. Their target wasn’t too far away, and Coop saw sensors light up the three soldiers like a Christmas tree.

“Stealth on,” the SGM relayed as the polychromatic layer engaged to cut their visual and sensor profile to near nothing.

Coop knew it had worked when no missiles streaked out to meet them, but they had other things to worry about.

“Grav-boots in three…two…one…NOW!”

Coop’s experience with the boots, which acted more like skates, was limited to what they’d done in training, and he sure as shit hadn’t activated them after falling nearly fifty stories after jumping out a window. Despite his own physical prowess, and the integrity of the LACS, a shudder hit his very core as the boots engaged and pulsed against the pull of the planet’s gravity. Unfortunately, pain lanced through him as well.

“AHHH my dick!” Coop’s V4 might had adapted enough for him to move around unencumbered, but the quick drop to a sudden stop was a whole different level.

“Suck it up, Sergeant!” The SGM ordered as he skated the last half-dozen meters down to the ground and cut both the boots and his stealth. Both were a drain on their battery they couldn’t afford in a prolonged fight.

Despite what the NCOIC said, Coop was still dry heaving as he hit the ground a little harder and stumbled. Over a year of practice, and knowing how much fighting in a puke-filled suit sucked, kept him from hurling.

After seeing his vitals jump his med systems inquired if he needed assistance. Since the solution was nanite injection into his shaft and nut sack, he declined. He was here to rescue Eve so he could put his log and berries back to work. He didn’t need needles getting stuck into it and hurting his performance.

“Quarterback had reached Phase Line Kickoff, proceeding to First Down,” the SGM sent to the rebels nearby.

“Roger that, Quarterback. Runningback and Tightends moving into position. Receivers are in motion.” The rebels replied over the TACCOM devices the team had handed out for the op.

“We’ve got sixty seconds. Let’s move!” The SGM charged ahead to reach Phase Line First Down, which was the assembly area for several of the units assigned to assault the Palace. The units had been in place since word of the Commonwealth fleet was coming had arrived. Everyone was hopped up and ready for a fight.

“Cornerbacks will engage in ninety seconds.” New information flooded in as team rounded a corner into a small square just as several vehicles pulled in. Coop noticed one as the vehicle he’d stolen when they ambushed the checkpoint a lifetime ago. He wanted to know how they’d smuggled it into the city – professional courtesy – but he was about to have bigger things on his mind.

Coop and Sullivan were on security as the SGM went to see if there were any last minute updates from the surveillance teams they’d put around the palace. It was a quick conversation, and before Coop was even settled they were moving again.

“First Down. Quarterback moving to Field Goal. All other units, Touchdown!” On cue, the rebel unit’s codenamed Cornerback, opened up on the palace from their overwatch positions. They raked the Windsor units stationed on the palace roof with small arms, rockets, mortars, and even more powerful plasma heavy weapons that they’d taken from the Windsor troops during various ambushes. It was a hell of a lot of firepower, and would have devastated a pre-shield force…but they were fighting a next-gen enemy. The portable shield the Windsor’s had weathered the storm of firepower turned against them, and then returned fire.

With the latest targeting software, the Windsor’s were able to zero in one the Cornerback units and bring their own hell down on them. Smalls arms fire from Windsor rifles, heavier fire from their crew-served plasma cannons, and counter fire from their own mortars quickly overwhelmed and silenced the unshielded resistance soldiers. The ground around everyone in the assembly area as a building previously occupied by a Cornerback team crumbled to the ground.

<Too quick,> Coop thought as he hurtled behind the SGM toward their objective. Field Goal, as it was also in football, was not as desirable as a touchdown. For their planning, touchdown was the rebels fighting to hit the palace at its main entrances. The more heavily defended areas. In reality, it was a feint. Coop doubted the rebels knew the firepower they were up against, but if the people wanted to fight the Windsor’s head on then that was up to them. The SRRT team was going for a field goal.

Their surveillance had identified a small, discrete back entrance to the palace complex. They would have missed it if they didn’t spot someone leaving just as they were doing their snooping. It was well-concealed, and probably well-guarded. The hope was that some of the guards would be pulled to help with the trouble at the front, and if not, that the SRRT was capable of dealing with them.

The roar of engines behind them announced the arrival of the receivers. A pair of garbage trucks – why the hell the rebels always used garbage trucks was beyond Coop’s understanding – came around the corner so fast they nearly tipped on their sides and raced toward the palace gates. The Windsor soldiers quickly switched targets, but just like with the earlier ambushes it was too late. Sheer mass and velocity were the vehicles’ armor, and even through the driver’s compartment and engine block were shredded by the Windsor’s heavy weapons, there was no stopping the beasts.

The first vehicle hit the main gate and detonated. The VBIED took out the gate and everything with twenty meters, including some overzealous rebel soldiers trying to follow closely in its wake. The second vehicle hit the wall about a hundred meters south of the gate, but failed to detonate. It didn’t even breach the shield-reinforced wall. The truck ended up with its front wheels up and over the wall while the back wheels remained on the ground.

Rebel soldiers streamed toward their assigned opening. The first ones through the gaping hole in the gate were cut down by fire from the roof until they threw some smoke grenades provided to them by the SRRT. The sensor and visibility spoofing smoke allowed some soldiers to sneak in. The rebels headed for the other truck had a much more difficult time. They tried to use it as a ramp to climb over the wall, but that made them sitting ducks for the Windsor’s snipers. They just picked off the rebels as they tried to climb over.

“Send in Linebacker,” Coop heard over TACCOM shortly before an industrial-sized, modified dump truck flew onto the scene. The back was loaded with rebel troops. The big vehicle was able to impose itself between the troops breaching the gate and the Windsor’s so the rebels could debark. The rebels scattered to hit the palace building itself from multiple angles.

Maybe half of the soldiers had made it out of the vehicle before the slight rumbling announced the arrival of their worst nightmare. A Windsor mech ran around the corner. Its stride seemed casual as its long legs carried it toward the truck and rebel soldiers. Its figure parted the smoke like a demon emerging from the depths of hell, and it extended its arm.

Coop couldn’t see what was happening to the rebels, but it felt like cold ice was poured into his veins when he heard the tell-tale rip of the mech firing its cannon. He’d taken a glancing blow from the powerful weapon and it had nearly ended him. He didn’t want to know what it was doing to the rebels inside the palace complex.

The condensed gravity ball of the mech’s cannon hit low on the dump truck completely shattering it. Despite the truck’s mass, it heaved into the air. Screams from the rebels filled the airwaves as they were pulverized, tossed from the back by the shockwave, or rolled out the back as it reared upward. The mech made it even worse by bending down and charging forward. It hit the undercarriage with its shoulder and effortlessly hefted the truck straight up. Screams intensified as the tip reached the point of no return and fell backward. Rebel soldiers scrambled to get out of the way, but many were stunned or injured from the first blast. They didn’t stand a chance as the truck flipped completely over and came crashing down on them. The mech turned to find new targets as the rebels peppering it with fire. Its shield sparked, but it moved calmly and confidently toward its next victims.

Coop tuned out the screams as he switched to the team-only channel. The SGM would let them know if anything else came in from the doomed rebels. Coop always knew this was going to be the outcome, so did the SGM, and yet they let the rebels do their suicide charge anyway.

<It’s not my place to wonder why. It’s my place to do, but not die, saving Eve.> Coop modified the old saying as the three LACS reached the side entrance.

The SGM lashed out with a foot and it cracked loudly against the reinforced door. Sparingly it held. “Hit it, Cooper!” the SGM yelled.

In his V4A, Coop had a lot more mass than the smaller V4B, so he lowered his shoulder and charged much like the Windsor mech had.

“Wha…” the door opened when Coop was two meters away, and a pissed Windsor soldier looked out. Coop saw his pupil’s dilate in his final biological act of surprise before Coop steamrolled right over him.

His momentum carried him forward, and only the servos in the LACS kept him from falling on his face, which was good, because at least a squad of soldiers was sitting in the small alcove around the door. To say they were pissed that Coop trampled their buddy into hamburger meat was an understatement. Rounds exploded against Coop’s shield as they opened fire.

At least one was smart and lobbed a grenade at him. Its lower speed cut through his shield before he could adjust its frequency. Thankfully, he’d preprogrammed evasive maneuvers for this exact situation. His grav-boots fired at a ninety degree angle to push him away from the explosive blast. The Windsor made the mistake of not magnetizing the grenade.

The powerful burst of the boots drained more battery, but it was worth it. The grenade exploded outside his shield and shrapnel flew into the Windsor’s ranks. The two soldiers with Coop’s mass between them and the grenade felt a brief moment of relief before Coop smashed into them, and carried them all into the side of the building. The building held, but the Windsor soldiers didn’t. They were crushed, and if they didn’t die instantly, their organs would quickly get strangled by their own blood from all the internal bleeding.

Coop didn’t have time to think about that as he pushed off their squishy remains and headed back into the fight. The heavier boom of a Buss filled the air and the soldiers’ resistance began to wither under the incoming plasma-tipped rounds. Sullivan pushed through the opening and swiveled right while the SGM went left. They picked off the panicked Windsor’s with precision. Soon, all that was left of the enemy was the ion-tinged air and stench of fresh shit and burned flesh.

“We need to move. We don’t have much time,” the SGM pushed forward.

For the first time, Coop heard the blaring alarm of the palace’s security system.

<Not that it matters much. You’d have to be a moron not to realize we were here.> Coop followed the NCOIC and periodically turned around the make sure their six was clear.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 263

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

“Missile launch! Two-Zero bogies at negative two-four-five degrees, ninety-thousand kilometers and closing!” The assistant tactical officer’s fingers flew across his personal holo-tank.

One of the many upgrades to the Aggie, and other ships in Task Force 5.1 was that the information integration was next generation. Instead of pounding away at stations or PADS, each officer on the bridge was immersed in their own semi-transparent bubble of data. It allowed them to fight the ship, steer it, communicate, conduct EW ops, or whatever else their job required while still having visibility on the rest of the bridge. In case of an outage due to catastrophic damage, they also had a manual PAD hardwired into the ship, but it was much more effective in the immersive holo-tank.

“Shit,” ADM Ward cursed as he cycled through views and data. “These fucking stealth pods are killing us.”

‘Kill’ was a bit of a strong word, but death by a thousand cuts was just as dead as death by beheading. One just happened a lot quicker. It was common defensive doctrine to seed missile pods along avenues of likely approach into a system. The Windsor’s had done this, but their tech was next level and causing a headache for the Commonwealth tactical officers. Thankfully, the Commonwealth had launch the attack quick enough that the system couldn’t be saturated with them, or maybe the Windsor’s didn’t have many of them. Either way it didn’t matter. He just needed to find a way through the minefield.

They’d been taking these random, close-range missile launches on the nose for the last hour, and it had forced them to adapt their formation. Instead of the assault carrier and battleships being at the center of the formation, they were now in front. For the other carrier groups, with only a few gluon powered ships in the formation, the carriers themselves were taking point in total disregard of centuries of naval strategy. Just seeing the ships, with fifteen thousand souls on board, driving headfirst into enemy missile fire was enough to give any ADM an ulcer. Carrier Group Alpha was lucky, and Aggie was driving behind the two battleships and providing a second layer of point defense for the more vulnerable, smaller classes bringing up the rear. Still, it was warfare turned on its head for any seasoned officer.

At ninety thousand kilometers, the missiles launch took almost no time to reach the lead battleship. He was keeping a close eye on the power readings as the twenty missiles barreled down on the behemoth.

<Correction…nineteen.> One of the missiles seemed to have malfunctioned and fallen behind.

The nineteen missiles blazed in and the battleship engaged. Only a handful of countermissiles were in a position to fire and reach their target in the short lifespan of the engagement. The rest were handled by the point defense lasers and railguns, and enhanced EW. Although, they were saving the EW capabilities until they really needed it.

The point defense lasers cycled faster and were more powerful thanks to the ship’s new power source. They lanced out at the speed of light and obliterated the missiles, or at the very least, boiling their sophisticated silicone brains so they became useless hunks. The latter detonated prematurely and fired their bomb-pumped ordinance into empty space. Only one missile made it close enough to actually threaten the battleship, but the hypersonic railgun rounds put a wall of duro-steel in the things incoming path and it disintegrated before detonating.

<That should have detonated sooner.> Ward had his Command AI run the calculations, and he was correct. The optimum attack profile should have detonated the missiles 1.32 seconds earlier.

All around him the bridge was clapping and sighing with relief. It was starting to grate on all their nerves whenever the enemy suddenly popped up and took pot-shots at them. Even an assault carrier could suffer from one lucky hit.

“Eyes front! Look sharp!” he barked from his position at the center of everything.

Three seconds later, his snap was completely warranted.

“Missile launch! One-two-zero bogies at one-eight-zero degrees, one-six-three thousand kilometers and closing.

<Son of a bitch!> ward snarled as the enemy successfully launch an up-the-shirt volley. It was about to take his carrier group directly up the ass. Even worse, the more vulnerable, smaller ships were its target.

“EW protocol Alpha-One-Zero,” he decided to stop holding his cards back. “All vessels below battleship class need to increase speed and try to draw parallel with us. We’ll fall back along with Monty and try to cover them.”

The battleship Bernard Montgomery, or Monty for short was already cutting speed to try and take the brunt of the missiles’ attack. Aggie would follow suit, but it was the battleship’s job to take the hits. He had ten thousand marines to get to the surface.

It was going to be nearly a full minute until those missiles reached his carrier group. Either he’d be in position or he wouldn’t. It was a smart trap by the Windsor’s and he’d walked right into it. He needed to trust his crews to pull through and fight the battle. Despite being a long way from his time as a tactical officer, or manning a missile tube or energy weapon, he still felt the pull to be more involved, but that was just a recipe for disaster. The ADM couldn’t micromanage. That would just get everyone killed.

“Bring up the Windsor’s fleet movements,” he subvocalized. He AI automatically switched from the incoming batch of missiles and focused on the real threat.

The task forces combined AIs had been crunching the numbers on the enemy disposition since entering the system. Coupled with the data received from the spy ship, they had a pretty good idea what they were about to go up against. The Windsor’s had forty-one ships in Harper’s Junction. They were forming up a couple million kilometers from the planet and hadn’t committed to any action yet, but their time for planning was running out. Of the forty-one ships, eleven were battlecruisers, with the remainder being cruisers and destroyers, with more of the latter. On paper, the Commonwealth should be able to wipe their ass with this puny force, but Ward knew better. Their ships were bigger, stronger, and better-equipped than their commonwealth counterparts…or at least they used to be. He’d watched holos of one of their battlecruisers fighting three Commonwealth battleships to a standstill in Queensland.

<That’s not going to be the case this time,> he knew, but it still filled him with the familiar dread of losing his sailors to achieve the mission. He didn’t let anyone see that as he watched the enemy gathering their forces.

He barely felt the rumble of the incoming missile salvo finally reach him, which was a good thing. Damage reports filled the side of his holo and he focused on those.

They’d done a good job of getting in position, but good wasn’t perfect. One of his cruisers hadn’t been fast enough and had been nearly crippled. They were down to twenty percent of their normal speed, and quickly falling out of formation. Some other ships had minor damage, but they would be able to conduct repairs and press into the fight.

“Have a destroyer fall back as an escort, and they can start to make their way toward Bravo’s position,” he ordered. The AI took that and calculated the escort that would have the easiest time completing the mission while not taking too much away from the carrier groups overall strength. It took less than a second before the orders were signed, sealed, and delivered over TACCOM to the appropriate destroyer captain. The ship broke off to swing back around toward the cruiser, which the carrier group continued forward.

“Have we had any luck cracking that stealth?” he asked his bridge crew.

No matter what the holo movie’s said, perfect stealth was impossible. Things like missile pods needed energy for launch and fire control. Those telemetry links took power, and if the pod was advanced enough to maneuver, it needed even more. Space was big, which helped, but it was virtually impossible to get rid of all emission signatures. They just needed to look close enough, and in the right place, to find it.

They took two more launches into their faces before they had enough data to make some educated guesses, and even then, the new algorithms the AI was using were spotty and had them jumping at shadows. Luckily, an energy blast didn’t cost much, and if it was a potential, big cluster of pods, they could spare a missile for a more precise hit.

“Enemy movement!” Ward pulled his head out of the last sensor sweep for pods and switched his displays.

<Finally.> They were still sixty million kilometers out from the planet, fifty-six from the enemy, and forty-eight from effective missiles range, but that distance was going to close fast now that the dance was in motion.

He watched for a full minute in silence as the Windsor’s formation started to move and separate. By then, he could tell what they were up to.

“Get me the commanders on the QE,” he ordered, and a few seconds later the AI had the FTL comms with the other carrier group commanders scattered across the system. The new system was dubbed, simply, QETACCOM, and it was still in the testing stages. Of course, some civilian engineer thought an engagement was a great testing ground.

“Gentlemen,” the three RADMS nodded back to him. The commander of Bravo looked a little sheepish, and he should be after that dismal arrival, but Ward had more pressing issues than chewing his ass. “It looks like they’re coming out to play. As you can see, they’ve split their forces in two. One is heading to Alpha, and the other to Delta.” Alpha and Delta had the two fastest approaches, so it made sense to target them first. “Charlie, you’re going to increase to flank speed and get your marines on that planet. Hold the orbitals for as long as you can and provide fire support for the landing. If you can’t hold, you can’t hold, but make sure your marines are ready for orbital retaliation. I’m sure the Windsor’s will leave a surprise or two on the dark side, so keep your eyes open.”

The RADM nodded and cut the link. He had a landing to manage.

“Bravo, you’re going to get your shit together and reinforce us.” Ward studied the holo-tank for another second to see what the AI’s had determined.

That was the great thing about these new AI’s, they gave much more detailed probabilities. With all the info in their databanks they were looking for whatever Ward had programmed them to look for, and things he hadn’t asked for, but became relevant as the situation changed. It looked like the AIs had determined that six of the eleven battlecruisers were on route to engage Delta and five of the six had a high probability of being state-of-the-art builds. That made sense. Delta only had an assault carrier, one battleship, and one battlecruiser that were upgraded. That was way too fair of a fight for Ward to accept. The Windsor’s own AI’s must have spotted the force discrepancy and targeted the more vulnerable formation. The remaining four battlecruisers, and significant portion of the smaller ships, of which five cruisers were high-probability new builds, were headed for Aggie. If he had to guess, they were meant to be a harassing force to slow him down, and limit his planetary invasion options while Delta was eliminated, and then the surviving Windsor’s would hit his engaged ships from the flank.

Thankfully, Bravo’s transition had sucked. He would never tell the RADM his, but it might have turned out to be a good thing.

“Reinforce Delta, and move your ass. Ward out.” He cut the line and let his people get to work. Delta was going to take a beating, but the RADM in charge was already cutting speed and slightly altering course to lengthen the time before an engagement. He couldn’t do too much, or he wouldn’t be a threat and the Windsor’s would change tactics, but the more time Bravo had to arrive the better.

All of the tactics and strategy involved filled his mind as he prepared for his carrier, three battleships and one battlecruiser to go up against nine, smaller, upgraded Windsor ships, but he kept an eye open and watching Charlie. They were unhindered as they quickly advanced on Harper’s Junction. Their battle would be on the ground, something Ward didn’t envy. He was a spacer and not a ground pounder for a reason.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 262

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

<This little piggy went to the market. This little piggy should have stayed home, and this little piggy makes things go boom. Blue is cool, red is dead.> Coop thought to himself as he connected the last of the ignition devices to the composite explosives.

A string of them was wrapped around the back side of a large, metal tube. Inside the tube were the energy relays of a main power conduit to one of the large surface-to-space cannons designed to protect the capitol.

Harper’s Center was not a well-defended city, which worked for the Commonwealth this time around. They had a handful of surface-to-space cannons to help keep assault carriers from dropping troops right on their doorstep, but most were still out of commission from the last battle, and Coop was trying to take out the rest.

The city also had two PDCs on the outskirts of town. Both were still badly damaged from the fighting, and the SGM was going to make sure the weak shielding that was available didn’t come back online when the Windsor’s needed it the most. Still, the Commonwealth would likely leave them alone if the civilians evacuated there. After all, they were still Commonwealth citizens in the government’s eyes.

The SRRT and rebellion had a firm grasp of what countermeasures were available to Harper’s Junction before the Windsor’s invaded. That wasn’t what they were worried about. It was what the Windsor’s had put in place since then that made them nervous.

“We’re good here,” Coop announced as he awkwardly twisted himself out of space between the pipes. Two rebel soldiers stood guard with barely concealed submachine guns. They would give the local cops pause, but if legit soldiers showed up they wouldn’t even tickle their armor.

“What’s next?” The bigger of the two rebels asked. His name was Stavos, and if he strung more than five words together that was a big deal.

Coop pulled out a paper list. Not something on his HUD or IOR, not even a polyplast slip. A legit piece of paper. I was one of the few times in his life he’d even held the rarely used substance.

When he asked the SGM why the list was on written on paper, the NCOIC replied, “So if you get caught you can eat it.”

Coop had licked the paper. It tasted plain enough, and as a Rat, he’d eaten worse.

“We’ve got to go two sectors over and disable a junction box. We’ll need to make sure we leave enough room for it to complete normal operations, but when invasion protocols kick in it’ll short circuit and kill power to two sections of town.”

Sabotaging that junction box was as much about getting the civilians out as making sure the Windsor’s had to spend time and resources fixing the problem, which would lead them right into the ambushes the rebels were setting. The SGM had really organized an insurgency’s wet dream.

The sector the junction box would blackout also belonged to the sector surrounding the palace. Having the local security force’s response time off by even a few minutes was going to be worth its weight in diamonds when it came to getting the rest of the team back. Insiders loyal to the rebellion had already reported the captured members’ location. They were all there: Eve, Mike, the LT, SSG Hightower, and even the injured Gunney; although the latter was in the infirmary on a separate level. That was going to make getting her more difficult, but the SGM had a plan.

Coop just hoped it worked.

 

Eve Berg

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

Everything was dark, calm, and quiet in the corner of Eve’s mind. She’d centered herself and retreated there as the Windsor’s tortured her. It was a trick taught to her in Ranger School during SERE training. Not everyone was able to do this. Some people’s minds were just too hectic, but those who could pull it off had an ace up their sleeve that was sure to be a thorn in the side of their jailers.

She pictured something, for her it was a small flame, and everything became that. She focused on the flame and became one with it. As stupid and backwards as the whole concept sounded, it worked, and she was able to ride out the worst of what her interrogators inflicted on her.

The worst thing about torture, what they’d failed to really simulate in school, was how long it could go on. By now, she was sure every inch of her had been cut and sliced. Her shoulder had been dislocated, bones broken, she’d been sapped with energy weapons, and just shot out of frustration at least once. As she pulled herself out of her protected corner of consciousness she got a look at herself in the full-body mirror the torturers had placed in front of her. It was supposed to inflict psychological trauma for someone to see themselves so mutilated, but as she focused in front of her, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. That was another setback of modern torture. People just didn’t die after all the pain inflicted. They were healed right up so the sick bastards could go to work on them again.

“You’re awake, good.” The female sergeant who always talked with her was seated just to the right of the mirror.

Eve was still naked as the day she was born and restrained, so it came as a surprise when the restrained snapped open and she fell to the ground.

<Now would be the perfect time to kick some ass,> she laughed to herself, but this wasn’t a holo. She couldn’t just bounce back from being tortured for what felt like months and take on the trio of big royal marines that were covering her.

She felt incredibly weak. So weak that her legs trembled when she struggled to her feet. The Windsor’s had basically starved her, and only given her enough to keep her alive. All her physical enhancements were useless unless she had enough calories to keep her fighting. If anything, they were a bigger hindrance now.

She stood there, naked, in front of the men and woman trying to think of something to do, or at least something interesting to say, but the woman beat her to that. She tossed a pair of clothes at her.

“Get dressed and follow me.” The woman walked to the door without looking back.

The clothes were plain and thin. They were enough to cover her modesty, but not enough to be used against anyone or hide anything. Eve slowly dressed in them as she watched her watchers. They were in standard armor, so they were frontline troops, not mechs, but that didn’t really matter. They’d fuck her up if things went sideways, so she did what she was told.

“Five meters,” the team leader ordered her as they left the torture dungeon that had been her home for god only knew how long.

Eve knew they were overreacting. A stiff fart from one of them would throw her off balance, but she kept her spacing from the woman. She followed down a corridor. There were other rooms, but no guards on them. She counted the rooms and the number of steps it took her to the turn. She didn’t know if she’d have to do this in the dark or without eyes when she tried to escape. They made a right turn and at the end of hall was a larger reinforced door, she guessed a lift, but they didn’t go to it. They took the second door on the left that led into a more spacious room.

There were other people in the room.

“Gun…”Eve began, but a glare cut her off.

The GYSGT’s face was severely bruised, obscuring her beauty behind a mess of black and blue. LT Wentworth, Mike, and SSG Hightower were also there looking exhausted but otherwise unharmed.

“So you’re a gunnery sergeant,” the Windsor sergeant sat down at a table on one side of the room. “The way she talked to you, I’d either put you at a private or lieutenant. You’re young either way and not in charge,” she studied the LT. “You, on the other hand are more seasoned. Some type of sergeant,” she pointed at Hightower. “Same with you, but not up to his standards,” she quickly dismissed Mike. “Lastly, you,” her eyes fixed on Eve. “You’ve got too much spunk to be anything but a corporal or sergeant. Prolonged service weights you down more, and you learn some tough facts about life and the galaxy. The Gunnery Sergeant understands this.” She completed her eerily accurate deduction. “Don’t worry. We’ll eventually identify you, parade you out in the streets as an example of your oligarchy’s attempts to defy the will of this planet’s people, and then you’ll be turned over to them for proper justice.” The woman didn’t gloat. It was just a statement of fact.

“All I want from you is information. How many more are with you? When is your Commonwealth going to counterattack? Give me this and I’ll tell the local authorities to take it easy on you,” she pointed at everyone but Eve. “You however. You destroyed a lot of public property and killed a few civilians. I doubt they’re going to let you off easy, so feel free to stay silent. If your compatriots help, maybe I can keep you alive.” A small smile tugged at the woman’s lip.

Eve hacked up what little saliva she had and spit on the table in between them. “Fuck you.”

As if on cue, a frenzied chirp emanated from the other woman’s body. She pulled out a PAD of some sort and opened a message where none of them could see. Eve might have not been able to see it, but she saw the slight tightening of the skin around the woman’s eyes. Something was up, and she just couldn’t resist.

“Something wrong?” she asked sweetly.

The woman didn’t answer. She got up and left the room. Her intentions were clear. She’d brought all the captured SRRT members into the same room to try and glean intel from them. She had done that, but the tables had been turned. She’d let them see something was wrong. That gave everyone a little bit of comfort.

 

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

He’d pushed the task force hard, but it was worth it. Aggie smoothly transitioned into normal space with only a slight tremble. Other ships wouldn’t be as lucky with their greener crews and fresh off a refit, but a couple of people loosing their lunches was a small price to pay for their timely arrival.

“Status?” he ordered and the holo-tank started to update.

Harper’s Junction wasn’t anything special. It was out of the way, and wasn’t much of a junction to anything, but the Windsor’s took it, so he was here to take it back.

“Alpha, Charlie, and Delta formations are reporting minimal dispersion, but Bravo…” the ADM didn’t need the tactical officer to continue further.

Bravo’s carrier group was scattered over several million kilometers. If they’d transitioned back to normal space closer to the planet, the Windsor’s would have been able to pick off the Commonwealth ships with ease. Fortunately, the battle plan called for them to arrive far from the target. They wanted the Windsor’s to commit to a course of action with time to react.

“Looks like we’ll be settling for Plan Three.” He sat back in his chair and watched the rest of the carrier groups get their acts together.

The task force was thrown together so fast and sent into action that there wasn’t time to develop clever names like most units did over time. They were simply Carrier Groups A, B, C, D, and the same was true with the battle plans. Plan One was if everyone transitioned well and were able to approach the target from their designated vectors. Plan Two was Alpha jacking up their transition, while Plan Three was Bravo Group screwing up and everyone else adapting. It meant the three carrier groups would approach the planet, while Bravo acted more as a reserve. It would allow the Windsor’s to concentrate more power on the three carrier groups, but it would also allow Ward to reinforce or break through somewhere if need be. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the reality he had to work with.

“Enemy forces should be learning of our transition in three…two…one…” the coms officer counted down.

As the light speed sensors updated, the holo-tank the ships in orbit around the planet began to move. The information was several minutes out of date, but the lag would lessen as they continued their approach.

“Let’s get to it people. We’ve got a planet to win back. Drone scouts out. Let’s make sure they don’t have any surprises waiting,” he sat back and ordered.

Now came the calm before the storm.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 261

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Harper’s Junction wasn’t what this planet should be called. Shit World was much more like it, and it wasn’t all because of the clusterfuck the mission had turned into. Coop had spent more than his fair share of time rolling around in shit. He’d been in the manure truck before the ambush on the checkpoint, and after the ambush launched against the arms smugglers, he’d been forced to wade through a literal river of shit without the benefit of the breathing mask.

He’d been lucky enough to escape the noose the SWAT team and Windsor soldiers tightened around the few remaining rebels and smugglers that were still in the fight. The second the mech touched down it was all over, and it was only Coop’s enhancements that allowed him to put enough distance between himself and the warehouse before it abruptly ended.

He’d sprinted for his life and taken refuge in the refuse. The exit plan was to get to the river of crap that had developed in the dump and ride that for the few kilometers until it reached the exit grates. Ideally, they’d have some sort of tool to help get through those grates, but he could muscle through them if need be.

The problem was causing a disruption while the area was on lock down. Sensors tied those grates to the central processing center, and while their intel showed that those sensors went off frequently when shit built up and started to leak through, the techs only came around to check the readings occasionally. When a competent military command was present, it was a given any anomaly would be investigated, so Coop had to bide his time.

For two days he’d hidden in the shit, and he’d had several close calls. Sheer dumb luck was on his side. One time, a couple of cops had come within a few meters of his hiding place. The sensor must have triggered, and it got checked like he thought it would. Like any other organization in existence there was a hierarchy. Whoever was handling the cordon of the facility probably delegated the task to one of the military commanders on site. That commander, like any good commander, didn’t want his troops wadding through shit to check on a frequently faulty sensor, so that person probably farmed out the task to the local cops. The local cops, probably pissed that they had to do literal shit work, didn’t thoroughly check the area, or didn’t have the technology to check it as well as the soldiers would have. Thank god for that, because Coop would have popped on some of the higher-resolution scans. Instead, the cops came, ducked their head in to casually check the drainage pipe, and that was it. He got off lucky.

After getting out of the dump, he had to make his way back to the HQ with no supplies or backup. It wasn’t too far, he’d easily ruck marched farther than that in a day, but it was something entirely different to walk all that way sticking out like a rotting, sore thumb. His first task was to get something new to wear.

He relied on his skills as a former Rat to complete that task. On the downside was that they didn’t have clothes anywhere near his size, and getting the more expensive smartcloth garments was a no go. That was an easy way to get caught, so he ended up looting a big and tall store that wasn’t nearly big or tall enough. He made up for the absurdly short pants and shirts with boots and gloves, but a few centimeters of skin still showed at his wrist and calves.

He felt like a fool scuttling through the streets like a hunchback, and people seemed to be picking up on his awkwardness. That, or he hadn’t quite washed off all the stench. More than one person crossed the street to get away from him.

Taking it slow and steady, it took him another day to get back to headquarters. His night sleeping in a homeless shelter had actually been better than the nights at the HQ. No one asked him any questions, they didn’t ask for ID, and they didn’t care what his story was as long as he was up and out by the morning.

He reached the HQ warehouse around midafternoon, and despite wanting to report in to the SGM, he sat back and waited. He’d spent a lot of time thinking about the GYSGT when he was alone in the drainage tube, and that wasn’t doing him any favors.

He wasn’t willing to admit it right now, but the Cunningham’s last transmission had shaken him to the core. He watched soldiers die right in front of him before. He’d killed people with his bare hands and watched the life leak from their eyes, but this was different. It was like having God die right in front of him. The GYSGT had always been a mythical figure for him, even more than the SGM. She’d trained him in Basic. She’d helped hone him to the finely tuned weapon he was now. He knew she’d been injured before, but she never showed it or let it influence her decision making. It didn’t seem possible that one second, she was there giving orders to him, and the next she was dead at the hands of a multi-meter mech and he was running for his life.

The darkness of the pipe had left this mind to wander about all the horrible ways the mech could have killed her. A drug-induced sleep would have been nice then, only because he wouldn’t see her face as those rounds tore into her and her chance of escape dropped to zero. He didn’t think he’d ever forget that.

After watching the building for several hours, he made his way to the back door. He didn’t meet any resistance as he pushed through, which was his first sign something was wrong. The doors were supposed to be magnetically sealed. He moved as quickly and quietly as he could. He had no weapon, so he hoped if he did come across someone, he could close to hand-to-hand distance fast enough to keep living.

As he moved through the offices in the back that had been makeshift sleeping quarters for the resistance, he noticed everything was gone. Moreover, everything was clean. By the time he pushed into the main open area he knew he wouldn’t find anything.

<They bugged out when they heard the supply run went to hell.> It was SOP, but Coop wasn’t sure if they’d gotten word yet. Plus, he still needed to come back to see where they were going.

It was also SOP that they would leave a code to where they were going next. He looked over the main door where G2 had been spray painted. If any Windsor cryptologist came in, they’d have a hell of a time figuring that out. The simplicity was the key. Coop and the rest of the SRRT had developed a simple but uncrackable code to let each other know where they moved the HQ to.

The G referred to a reference book, in this case the Guttenberg Bible. He had the information stored on his IOR, so he easily pulled it up. G was also the seventh letter of the alphabet, so he flipped to the seventh page and went to the second word on the second line. Three was the word in that space, which meant they’d relocated to the third of their possible backup HQs. In this case, it was an under-construction high-rise in the business district with commanding views of the surrounding area. To Coop, it was the least practical of HQs, but the SGM must have had his reasons. It was another three kilometers away, so Coop waited for rush hour to hit the streets with as many bodies as possible. He still didn’t know if he’d been IDed while casing the palace, but better safe than sorry.

<Would be better if I had some nanites to shift my appearance.> Harper’s Junction was a little behind the times, but CC TV cameras running facial recognition software was pretty standard throughout the galaxy.

He set out and got to the new HQ just before the tide of people heading home subsided. He took a few laps around the building and spotted the rebel lookouts that had already spotted him. He didn’t pay them any more attention. They would have already radioed his arrival upstairs.

He took the grav lift up past the already completed sections. Some construction crews were still working late, but they looked sympathetic to the rebellion, because they didn’t bat an eye as they waved Coop to a utility elevator that took him up the back way to the top few floors.

When they pinged open, he was met with weapons drawn and a hard look on the SGM’s face. Their IORs must have synched because he waved the rebels off. Coop walked straight to the SGM to give his report. The NCOIC listened thoughtfully as Coop recounted the meet, brief engagement, and his flight to safety. He asked several questions about the GYSGT, and Coop had to give him the bad news.

Coop expected some reaction out of the man who was leading their team. He’d worked with the GYSGT longer than Coop had, and they both had a longer special ops background than him. Coop at least expected the older man to bow his head in a moment of silence, but he got nothing. That pissed him off.

“What, Sergeant?” The SGM noticed his attitude.

“You just lost your number two, Sergeant Major. She sacrificed herself for this bullshit mission and you’re acting like I forgot to bring home milk from the corner store.  I expected a little more for a fallen hero.” He wanted to scream but he kept his voice down. He knew the rebels wouldn’t take too kindly to him calling their fight for freedom bullshit.

Even more upsetting was the lack of a response he got from the SGM. <That’s just cold.> He was about to turn away.

“She’s not dead,” the SGM’s words stopped him in his tracks.

“What?”

“Gunnery Sergeant Cunningham didn’t die at the warehouse. She was gravely injured, but the Windsor’s took her alive.” He didn’t even break stride on what he was doing. “While the rest of you have been working on getting munitions and supplies for the upcoming fight, I’ve been trying to crack into the Windsor’s comms and break through some of the jamming they have going on around the city.” He pointed toward his LACS, which was sitting open in the corner.

Coop knew the command LACS had special capabilities his own V4 didn’t, but it hadn’t occurred to him what the SGM had been working on.

<That’s the different between sergeant and the sergeant major. He’s thinking big picture while I’m just focused on keeping my own shit squared away,> Coop wasn’t egotistical enough to dispute it. He wasn’t keeping an eye on anything other than keeping his ass alive and eventually saving Eve’s. Anything else wasn’t his job.

“I’ve made progress. My LACS’ AI had cracked some of their comms, and I heard about the GYSGT’s capture. I also was able to boost my signal enough to break through their jamming for a few seconds, which is all I needed to get an incoming QE message.” He paused for dramatic effect. “The fleet is on the way. They’re coming to retake Harper’s Junction with four brigades.”

<Four!> Coop felt positively giddy at having forty thousand people fighting on his side for a change.

“They’ll be here in under a week, so that gives us limited time to work. We’ve got a task list a mile long from the brass. We’re going to need to prep for their landing as much as possible, which means disrupting communications, logistics, knocking out any of the land-based surface to air and space weapons that we can, and just causing confusion in general. I’ve already alerted the resistance to the timetable, and they’re coordinating attacks to all go down when the fleet arrives. Our mission is to make sure we lose as few troops as possible in the drops.”

Coop personally hadn’t done a drop, but he would feel better if he knew an advanced recon team was sabotaging the enemy’s capabilities while he was helplessly flying down from the ships.

“I’ve got you set up with taskings over there,” the SGM pointed to a corner. Coop turned and stopped dead in his tracks.

The SGM’s finger was pointed right at a V4 LACS, and it wasn’t Coop’s.

“Don’t worry, Cooper. I’ll tell the GYSGT I let you use it. It’s not like she can use it right now anyway.” Coop swore he could see a smirk on the other man’s face.

All he could do was gulp and nod as he headed over to the GYSGT’s LACS and powered it up. The SGM had already reset it to factory mode so it was ready to accept Coop’s IOR and preprogrammed settings. Coop hopped in to run diagnostics and get a feel for it. The V4’s were fit to the soldier, but they had some capability to shift around. It was a little snug in the armor’s confines, but it was better than wearing flimsy smartcloth.

<It’ll have to do,> he sighed and pulled up his taskings.

He was going to be busy for the next several days.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 260

Admiral Sonya Berg

Location: New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Sonya strode forward with purpose. Other officers, NCOs, and specialists saluted her as she passed, but her eyes were fixed on the door at the end of the hallway. On either side of it were two HI troopers dressed for battle. The one on the right held out his hands as she approached.

“I need…” the soldiers stopped short as Sonya transmitted her GIC code via her IOR. Not many people had the updated internal implant, so if her five golden stripes didn’t do the trick that did.

There were very few people that could walk in on the PM without an appointment, and it was up to these guards and the PM’s chief of staff to stop their boss from being hassled, but the Chief of Naval Intelligence always had a get in free card.

“Thank you, ma’am,” the heavily-reinforced door slid open to admit her.

The conference room the PM had commandeered had half a dozen media holos playing while data chips, hard-copy polyplast documents, and a few PADs lay neatly ordered around the woman in charge. The PM put down a PAD she was perusing and raised an eyebrow at Sonya.

“Admiral?” There was a question in her tone.

“I need a moment of your time, Prime Minister,” Sonya waited for the PM’s nod to take her seat.

“You don’t usually barge in on people, Sonya,” the PM dropped the formality, but her face remained neutral.

“I learned a long time ago to speak my mind if I think something is up. In my line of business it is better to be overly cautious and wrong than let things slide.”

“Ah,” the PM leaned back in her chair and placed her hands in her lap. “You think I’m making a mistake.”

“It’s forty percent of our upgraded combat strength, straight out of their shaken down cruises with untested crews,” agitation flowed out of Sonya. “It’s my job to assess intelligence and present you with threats, and putting this much of our updated fleet into action is going to fuck us in the ass if it goes south,” she tried to recover with a cough, but it was too late. Saying ‘fucked in the ass’ to the leader of the most power interstellar civilization wasn’t something that was done every day…or ever.

“Sure it will,” the PM replied casually enough that Sonya laughed. It was just like their days back on Dauntless. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t take the chance.”

“Ma’am…”

“Let’s speak candidly, Sonya,” the PM cut her off. “You think I’m an infantry grunt about to throw tens of thousands of spacers and billions upon billions of new tech into the fire to win back a planet, which in the grand scheme of things means less than the shit I took this morning.”

“Deja,” Sonya took a long breath, “I think you’re trying to prove a political point with military lives.”

The PM’s face hardened at the comment, but Sonya didn’t back down. After a moment of tense silence, the PM’s face softened a touch.

“I am trying to make a political point. A point to Commonwealth citizens that if you get conquered we are going to do everything in our power to rescue you. A point to the Blockies that they better think twice about acting on our apparent weakness. A point to the Euros that we aren’t forsaking our commitments, and lastly, a point to the Windsor’s that if you fuck with us you’re going to be the one taking it up the ass.” The PM’s fist hit the table with a loud smack. “But you’re right, Sonya, I’m a ground pounder playing a fleet admiral’s game, but that’s why I have Gilmore to fall back on. You’re not exactly one to speak on this subject.

The reprimand stung, but it was true. Like anyone to reach flag rank, Sonya was required to hold certain commands. She’d commanded a cruiser, battleship, and a task force. The cruiser had been a peace time tasking. The battleship had seen minor action against pirates, but no pirate stood a snowball’s chance in hell facing off against a battleship. As a task force commander, she’d gone toe-to-toe with a Blockie force of comparable size in a system dispute. She’d prepared to fight, but the diplomats worked it out.

The PM knew she didn’t have great fleet command under her belt, but that wasn’t her specialty. Her intelligence agents had wormed their ways into every conceivable government, corporation, and organization in human space. She had eyes and ears everywhere.  She’d gotten her hands dirty as a junior officer in the shadow war between covert assets throughout the galaxy, so while she might ride a desk now, she knew where a number of bodies were buried.

The two women stared intently at each other before she gave a nod. If the PM could acknowledge her lack of experience, then so could Sonya.

“Gilmore is putting together the battle plan and I’ve got Ward in command. The man is fresh off a victory and wants more blood.” Sonya was glad to hear that the PM had competent naval officers running the show. “But what I do know that you are overlooking is seizing the initiative.” Her voice was stern again. “The Windsor’s have it now and we need to take it back. We need violence of action. We need to hit them when they’re reveling in their victory. The universe is watching us. The Hegemony is judging us, and we need to look good.” The PM had only been in office for a few weeks, but she looked tired. “We can’t afford to lose, which is why I’m putting nearly half our new assets into the field while the other sixty percent make sure we’re secure here and can build more. Hell, we might lose more systems if they counterattack before we’re ready, but in the long game I know we’ll end up ahead if we can bloody their nose here.”

Sonya looked in the PM’s eyes. She was a good judge of when another person was lying or just straight up bullshitting. The PM was doing neither of them, which was why she felt confident saying what she said next. “My daughter is on Harper’s Junction.” She stopped the tears from forming. “And my son’s battlecruiser is slated for part of this task force you’re putting together. If this goes sideways, the rest of my family dies.”

The PM’s face softened again as she reached across the table and took Sonya’s hand. “If this goes sideways a lot of families are going to be torn apart. It is up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.” She gave it a squeeze and let it go. “I’ve got a meeting in two, so why don’t you go help out Gilmore. Ward is probably driving him up the wall right now. They’re from the same generation, but different schools of thought.”

Sonya chuckled. Ward and Gilmore had been at odds since the academy. To Gilmore, naval warfare was a dance, to Ward, a boxing match where anything goes. Sonya had been caught more than once supplying Intel to rationalize one or the others’ plans.

“I’m on it. Sorry for disturbing you.” Sonya got up to leave.

“Don’t be.” The PM waved away the apology. “If someone can’t come and tell me they think I’m about to screw up then I’m not a good leader.”

<She is a good leader,> was Sonya’s last thought as she stepped out of the room.

“Hello, Admiral Berg,” the man who approached was wearing a visitor’s badge that gave him full clearance.

“Thomas,” Sonya nodded to the titan of industry. “What brings you to the CEOC?”

“I’ve got some concepts I want to run by the PM,” he replied with a smile.

“You mean you’ve got some weapons tests you want to run in the field and the Harper’s Junction operation is the best opportunity you’ve had in a decade,” she stated, and watched his eyes flicker between surprise and suspicion so fast she nearly missed it. “Good luck.” She walked away knowing the CEO would be wondering how she knew what she knew.

It didn’t mean she didn’t disagree with his ideas. In fact, the Commonwealth needed every ace up their sleeve that they would pull in the next week. She’d seen the numbers for the first ships out on their shake down cruises, and those numbers were adequate at best.

We’re in for a hell of a fight, she sighed as she went to check on Ward and Gilmore.

 

***

 

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

The Hero of Yangon stood on the flag bridge of his upgraded flagship and watched the replay holo of the latest training simulation. He wasn’t satisfied, but he wasn’t pissed either. Task Force Five Point One had been thrown together on a whim and told to go fight the Commonwealth’s most dangerous enemy practically overnight.

<At least I’ve got Aggie here,> he gave the command chair of his flagship, the refurbished Assault Carrier CWS Agincourt, a meaningful pat.

She’d already been in the yards recovering from the beating at Yangon, and with the new alien tech getting installed she was a prime candidate for upgrade. Then, 5.1 got commissioned and it became a logical choice.

5.1 was an unusual configuration of ships. Not necessarily in the ships themselves, but in how they were going to be deployed in the battle. He didn’t exactly like the changes Gilmore had been selling, but the man was ultimately his boss, and he begrudgingly saw the need to shake things up in this situation.

They’d studied the Windsor’s battle plans from the recent blitz in excruciating detail and contrived a plan to rob them of as many advantages as possible. In the process he was being effectively demoted. Task Force 5.1 might be big, but it wasn’t going to be run by a fleet admiral like usual.

The plan called for the task force to be divided up. Going head on in a traditional battle wall against the Windsor’s superior shields and weapons was suicide. They’d learned that painfully at Queensland with the Aussies. 5.1 had been reorganized along the corporate carrier group model, which was enough to get his hackles up. Corporate security forces were full of people who couldn’t hack it in the fleet, or left for the payday. Either way, he didn’t think highly of them, but in this case, their formations just happened to work better.

5.1 had four assault carriers tasked for the mission, which would be complete overkill in any other situation. On them they’d have their full complement of four brigades, forty thousand marines, to help retake Harper’s Junction when the time came, but more importantly, all four carriers were upgraded with the new gluon power plants, shields, point defense clusters, energy weapons, missiles, and some killer new EW systems. The same could not be said of all their escort ships.

Each carrier had a half dozen battleships, battlecruisers, missiles cruisers, and a number of destroyers to cover their flanks. In total, each carrier formation numbered at least twenty ships. According to the numbers coming from the spy gunboat that had been on station that was sixty percent of the Windsor’s total force projection. The Commonwealth learned long ago you couldn’t project a one-to-one ration against the Windsor’s.

Of the escort ships, a formation was lucky if one third the battleships were upgraded. Aggie’s group was the only one to boast three upgraded battleships and a battlecruiser, and it got those because it was the task force flagship. The second and third formations each had two battleships, with the fourth formation only having one. Ward tried to make up the difference by giving them an upgraded battlecruiser, while the other formations had zero, but everyone knew one battleship was worth a hell of a lot more than a battlecruiser. Still, the intel stated the Windsor’s didn’t have anything bigger than a battlecruiser on station, although, they were big ass ships.

The theory behind the new battle plan was to get the Windsor’s to commit their forces piecemeal to engage each of the carrier formations, which would each use different avenues of approach to advance on the planet. This would cut down on the number of enemy hulls facing the more vulnerable Commonwealth formations. Or, the Windsor’s could take their whole fleet and engage one of the carrier groups. In that case, that group would take evasive maneuvers and stay at the edge of the enemy’s missile envelope, while still continuing to harass the enemy. This would keep the Windsor’s off balance, but would make the fight last longer. Either way, the marines would get on the ground and retake the planet.

He’d been drilling his people hard in these new tactics since receiving command because their lives literally depended on it. Their capabilities might look good on paper, but it took people to fight the ships, and if those people didn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground then it didn’t matter what new tech they had at their disposal.

“Sir, I’ve got the Prime Minister on TACCOM,” a nervous-looking communications officer announced.

“Put her on,” he put on his serious face to address the leader of the Commonwealth.

“How’s it looking, Mike?” Simmons’ face popped on the holo and he couldn’t stop a small grin from forming. Once upon a time, he’d been a task force commander and she’d commanded the marines on his ships. They went way back, but his crew didn’t need to know that.

“We’re improving, Madame Prime Minister,” he kept it basic in the hopes she’d read between the lines.

“Are you ready?” She came out and asked him point blank.

“We’re the Commonwealth Fleet, ma’am, the greatest fighting force in the galaxy. We’re always ready for any threat.”

Her calculating eyes studied him before she nodded. “Your deployment orders should be in your inbox now. Godspeed.” She cut the link and a soft ding announced the arrival of the orders followed by a second ding.

He couldn’t help but chuckle as he read the second message. It was a promise of a stiff drink and enlightening conversation about how the Commonwealth Infantry was the greatest fighting force in the galaxy when he made it back victorious.

The deployment orders weren’t as funny. They were to set out immediately for Harper’s Junction, which meant within the next twenty four hours. Because not all of the task force’s ships were upgraded, they’d have to use the Alcubierre Launcher Network and drives to get to the target system. That called for multiple refueling stops after traversing the network and dogging it the last few dozen light years on drives. With Harper’s Junction being almost eight hundred light years away, it was going to take them upwards of ten days to get there.

There was no time to waste.

He passed the orders to the navigators and called for a meeting of his staff and all captains and XOs in two hours. They had a lot of work to do and not enough time to do it in, but that was the Navy.

<Which is why we’re the greatest fighting force in the galaxy.>

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