Two Worlds – Chapter 330

“Why the fuck are we out here?” whispered a PFC as he crept through the blackness. His HUD made it look like it was high noon in the Houston-Dallas-Austin metropolis, but that didn’t stop it from feeling creepy.

“Because we’re expendable,” the CPL leading the two-man mission hissed back. “Now shut the fuck up.” They continued to inch forward through the bay toward the former entrance to the bunker complex.

Abandoned vehicles, powered-down Spyders, crates of discarded supplies, and the metal helms of several LACS watched the two scouts as they attempted to investigate the massive space. Both men had been present when this area was bursting with activity. They’d also been present when it was boobytrapped and abandoned. The last thing either one of them wanted was to be back here.

“I’m lodging a formal complaint with the LT,” the PFC continued anyway. “This is a misuse of essential resources,” he jiggled his IAR for emphasis. “This rifle could be put to use in the blockades down below, not sneaking around up here.”

The CPL just shook his head behind his faceless helmet. “Your grievance is noted,” the scales system would pick it up and log the complaint. “Your problem is that you think people give a fuck.”

The remark bought the CPL a minute of precious silence. The boobytraps had been highlighted on their HUD, and they stepped carefully around them. The engineers had planted mines, there were motion sensor trip wires attached to artillery shells, basically; anything that would make a big boom when the ETs came through had been carefully placed. Even better, some of the ordinance was on a delayed timer, so even if the ETs tripped it, they’d wait to draw more bodies in before detonation. Against your average human formation, the traps would be deadly, but with the ETs shield tech, it would probably just slow them down; just like the small cave-in that trapped every human in the bunker complex underground.

The CPL’s millimeter wave radar picked up something beside the rock of the tunnel they’d proceeded into after the maintenance bay. He sent a message to the PVT to halt, and went down to one knee. He focused his sensors more and picked up a heartbeat.

“We’ve got something ahead,” despite his sensors indicating the heartbeat was weak, and in need of medical attention, he took it slowly. “Cover me.” He would have told the PVT to check it out, but the baby-faced kid was turning out to be a little chicken shit despite all his big talk.

He hoped the kid didn’t shoot him in the back as he crept forward. The readings said the heartbeat was twenty meters in front of him, just on this side of the cave-in. With each step, he expected an ET to jump out and kill him, but nothing happened. Instead, he made it to the body . . . or what was left of it.

“Get up here,” the CPL ordered after he cleared the area. The PVT shuffled up with his weapons raised and pointed at the CPL. “Put that shit down and help me.”

“Oh god,” the PVT audibly gulped over the net. “this guy looks like someone took a flamethrower to him.”

“What the hell is a flamethrower?” the CPL asked as he assessed the casualty.

There were third degree burns all over the person’s back. He was missing a leg at the knee, and was just generally fucked up. He had a compound fracture to his left arm, his shoulder was out of his socket, several ribs were cracked, and there was definitely internal bleeding. The CPL took out his ration of medical nanites and jammed it into the soldier’s back. It should help keep the poor son-of-a-bitch alive until they could get him to the medics.

“It was a weapon used back in the twentieth century,” the PVT started to ramble. “It shot out a wave of fire and roasted everything for about five meters.” The PVT hadn’t been in a fight, probably had never been off Earth, but he thought because he knew these little facts that he was some kind of military expert.

“Five meters, who the hell would invent a weapon with such shitty range,” the CPL cut off the kid. “I could take out someone from six meters with a wet fart. Fuckin’ five-meter weapon,” he trailed off as the body began to stir. He immediately shot the poor guy full of pain meds, but that as all he could do.

The PVT pointed his weapon at the man who reared up on his one good leg, and the CPL had to grab his weapon and point it at the ground. The guy was big, clearly some HI trooper who’d made it out of the clusterfuck outside before the cave-on locked everything down.

The guy seemed to shake it off and then grabbed the CPL by the collar. Despite having one leg, and being freshly BBQ’d, he still picked the soldier up off the ground. This time the PVT didn’t aim his rifle at the madman. If he lived, the CPL needed to whoop that kid’s ass really good.

“What the fuck happened?” the man gritted out, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.

“I don’t know,” the CPL answered honestly. “But I can take you to someone who does.”

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: North American Eastern Seaboard, Smokey Mountains, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Everything hurt. It wasn’t the type of hurt after a hard day’s work where you could get a good meal, a good night sleep, maybe be a little sore, but good to go the next day. Nope . . . this was the type of hurt you couldn’t push through the pain. This was the type of hurt when you were broken, and Coop felt broken.

The initial surge of the drugs and painkillers made him feel invincible, and he made a mental note to apologize to the grunt who he’d picked up. That initial rush was short-lived, and he barely made it back to the maintenance bay before nearly collapsing. He barely saw the medics before he was out again. The CPL’s injection definitely saved his life, but life was going to suck ass for a little; and that didn’t even take into consideration if the ET’s didn’t bust in and murder him in his sleep.

<Fucking aliens,> he was really starting to hate anything that wasn’t human.

“Now hold still,” some civilian nurse said as the ground rumbled and the lights flickered.

A big machine with a dozen thin, mechanical arms was sitting next to the table he was lying face down on. He didn’t have much choice but to follow the nurse’s instructions. He couldn’t do much more than lay there. The impromptu hospital they’d retrofitted deep in the bunker complex wasn’t full yet. The ET’s were still pounding their way through the mountain – or that’s what it sounded like – and nobody from the outside had made it back in. That hit him like a punch to the gut and he couldn’t hold back a sob.

“I haven’t even started yet,” the nurse frowned at him, misinterpreting everything.

He’d been in and out of it since the CPL found him, but he’d had enough energy at one point to ask an LT about Eve and the western front. The kid was busy, running around like a chicken with his head cut off, but he did relay that the ETs had brought some new mobile artillery to the fight. The western front had been routed and everyone was dead.

Coop was too shocked to grab the LT and shake him for more information before he moved away. The thought of Eve being dead was learning the sun wouldn’t rise in the morning and set in the evening. It was impossible.

<I don’t believe it,> he concluded. <I’ll believe it when I see the body.> The problem was that would probably never happen judging by the ground shaking this deep underground, and a gnawing feeling at the back of his mind kept telling him to accept that she was gone. <Fuck that. Fuck all of this.>

He griped the table out of rage as a cool sensation spread across his back and legs. The blast that had roasted him like a Thanksgiving turkey had been localized to his back. Of course, that meant he’d lost a third of the hair on his head and been blasted all the way down to his heel. Even his front was a little red, but with the limited resources, the docs were going to fix the third-degree stuff and let what amounted to a harsh sunburn heal on its own.

The cool sensation faded into numbness, and the only reason he knew the procedure had begun was the machine hummed to life. It was a simple operation. They needed to remove the dead, burned skin, and the machine’s dozens of arms went to work on that immediately. It would take time, and even with the numbing, he felt the occasional painful tug when they had to yank on something a little deeper. He sucked it up and took it, even when the machine started peeling off his ruined ass. Having your cheeks spread and dead skin plucked from around your asshole was something he hoped to only have to experience once in his lifetime. At some point in the process he passed out.

He woke up with an IV in his arm and a nurse sticking him with more medical nanites. He had no idea what for this time, but his back was still cool and numb. “I’m going to put you back under,” she explained as she pulled out a hypo full of something strong enough to knock his ass out. You need at least eight hours for the new skin to set.”

She moved a mirror into place so he could see the machine’s fine work. In his opinion he still looked unnatural. Now, instead of a black charred mess, there was fresh pink skin. It was still creepy to look at, and he quickly averted his eyes.

“Eight hours,” the rumbling didn’t feel any closer, but it was more frequent. The lights were also dimmed in his room; to conserve energy for the siege.

“Yes,” the nurse replied, and stuck the syringe into the intake valve of the bag. “Next thing you know you’ll wake up and they’ll give you orders for what to do next.

<That’s more like it,> he thought as his eyelids grew heavy. He needed to do something. He couldn’t sit here feeling sorry for himself and thinking about Eve. Fuck that.

She didn’t even have to tell him to count backwards. He was out before she left the room and turned off the lights. Thankfully, the meds didn’t let him dream, or he was sure he’d have nightmares. Coop had been in a lot of shitty situations, but this was by far the worst. Even if he miraculously made it out, he was sure he’d never be the same. Even worse, he might be a single dad, and that terrified him most of all.

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Clans of Atlantis – Sneak Peak Part 3

“Sir, we’re beginning our descent,” Afu’s hand gently prodded Gus’ shoulder, “and happy birthday.”

Gus groaned as he brought his seat to its upright and locked position. It felt like only a second had passed since he closed his eyes, but his watch told him it was closer to six hours. He still felt like crap as he stared out the small oval window into the black. They were still several thousand meters up, but clusters of lights glittered below as they broke through the clouds and the Kingdom of Atlantis came into view.

The Kingdom was actually a grouping of six islands. The center island, Creta, was the largest of the six. It was about twenty-five percent larger than the main British Isle that contained England, Scotland, Wales; and housed the bulk of the Atlantean population. At the center of the Creta, along a mountain range that spanned the center of the island, was the dormant volcano, the Creator’s Hand. Legend had it that was where the first Atlanteans were brought into existence. More personal to Gus, his family claimed to be descended from that first Atlantean, and had ruled over Creta since before Plato came to their shores.

To the east of Creta, in the direction of the USA, were three smaller islands: Tynti, Imi, and Cetho. Between Creta and these islands was a small sea known as the Shallows, which collectively lent its name to the three islands: the Shallow Sisters. The shallows stretched the short distance between Creta and the Shallow Sisters. It was known as the shallows because it was twenty and a half meters at its deepest points. In most points, it was only a few meters deep, which made it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Its crystal blue waters, and abundant sea life, made it ideal for snorkelers. There were also a number of ancient Atlantean and enemy ship wrecks for scuba divers to explore.

The Shallows was also home to the remains of the Atlantean and USA’s first encounter. On the way back from opening Japan to the West in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry and his four-ship East Indian Squadron enter the Shallows in order to open negotiations with Gus’s great-great grandfather Atlas the Second. Unlike the rest of the world, where Atlantis had been largely forgotten or resigned to legend, Atlas kept track of what the other nations were up to. He had Atlantean intelligence services gathering information on every major nation on the planet, so he knew about the USA’s ongoing wars against its indigenous peoples, and their acceptance of slavery. That, coupled with Atlas being a staunch isolationist and traditionalist, meant he immediately rejected Perry’s offers. Perry decided to use the same playbook from Japan: gunboat diplomacy. That ended with his ships failing to getting off a shot before they were sunk. It didn’t help that Perry had cannons while Atlas had missiles.

To this day, the skeletons of the USS Mississippi, Saratoga, Plymouth, and Susquehanna rested about two hundred meters off the coast of Creta. Ironically, hundreds of thousands of American tourists came every year to tour the wrecks and give their hard-earned dollars to the Atlantean economy. That was essential what the majority of Creta’s east coast was dedicated to: tourism. Along with the western coasts of the Shallow Sisters, it made up one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

While the eastern islands of the kingdom held enough foreign influence to make Atlas the Second role over in his grave, the western half was much more traditional. Historians and geologists believed the Shallow Sisters and Creta had once been one large island. Over time, a large lake, or inland sea, combined with the Pacific Ocean to create the Shallows. The was not the case with the two western islands. The distinction also reached into Atlantean society and politics.

Separating Creta from the two western islands was fifty kilometers and a section of ocean known simply as the Deep. Where the Shallows came up to people’s chest in most places, the Deep saw a precipitous drop less than twenty meters from Creta’s shoreline. The Deep topped out at five hundred meters. You could not casually walk or swim from Creta to the western islands. One, Yinglong, was nearly a third the size of Creta, while the other was the smallest of them all.

The capitol of Atlantis, Atland, sat on Creta’s western coast to keep watch over Yinglong. It was the home island of House Drake’s chief political rivals, and longtime foes, House Yinglong. There was a saying in Atlantis that someone could have an “ego the size of a Yinglong”. Gus had used it many times, sometimes to a member of House Yinglong’s face. After all, what did they expect would happen when they named an island the size of Iceland after themselves?

Gus watched the lights on Creta glow brighter as the plane descended toward the capitol. As the first towers of the city’s center came into view, Gus’s gut seemed to drop into his feet. It was really happening. His father hadn’t called it off. He was going off to report to boot in a few hours, and his life would change forever. His official duties as crown prince began when the clock struck midnight, and he’d slept right through his transition from boy to man.

“Hey, Afu, I never thanked you for having my back in there. Things could have been a lot worse without you around.” A real man took accountability for his actions and gave credit to others when it was due. It was also a good quality to have in a king.

Afu just nodded. His expressions said “I was just doing my job”, which was true, but Afu had always been more than that. Afu had been present at Gus’s birth, watched him as a baby, and made sure he didn’t hit his head on any sharp corners as a toddler. Afu was sworn to his mother and Gus, but it went deeper than that. Afu was distantly related to his mother’s family, which made him some sort of uncle to Gus. It was a relation Afu never mentioned, and one Gus had pretty much ignored, but at a moment when everything was changing and unknown, it was comforting to have family standing by his side.

“For at least another ten minutes.” The runway of Creta’s international airport rushed up to meet him. His father’s threat meant Gus would stop being the crown prince very shortly; in exchange for being simple Recruit Drake.

That’s how it was at boot. Everyone was the same no matter their lofty titles, family wealth, or connections. Even future kings were just another body and mind to be molded to defend the kingdom. Sure enough, as the plane touched down, and taxied toward the royal hangar, a convoy of open-air vehicles was waiting for him. The four-seater at the front, which looked similar to the American-made Jeep, had a driver and two men in the khaki tactical outfit of the Atlantean royal marines.

Gus’s practiced eyes scanned them. He’d memorized the marine ranks, duties, responsibilities, and unit structure before his third birthday. One of the men waiting for him wore a golden crown on his shoulder epaulets. “Major. Normally a rank that holds a staff position at brigade level, or operates as the executive officer at the battalion level.” He recalled the information as he moved to the next man.

This man had a lot more going on. He had three chevrons, that looked like inverted V’s, followed by three rockers, that looked like U’s, below them. Between them was a golden crown with a laurel wreath. “Command Sergeant Major. The highest non-commissioned officer rank, and could be the non-commissioned officer in charge of anything from a battalion to the entire Atlantean military.” Gus knew it wasn’t the latter, because he’d had dinner with Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Stonewall before he left on his now-failed diplomatic tour. Still, whoever the man was, he was important to Gus’s immediate future.

Gus waited for the plane to come to a complete stop in the hangar before opening the door himself. They didn’t have any baggage, so Afu followed him down the steps and over toward the waiting men.

“Gentleman,” Gus stated politely as he stopped in front of them.

“You will stand at the position of attention and salute an officer, recruit!” the CSM snapped.

“CSM Ridgeway,” Gus committed the NCO’s name to memory, not necessarily to enact revenge at a later date, but to remember to tell his father if the man was any good at his job. “Ridgeway…?” he tried to remember if that was a name of a particular House of importance. Unfortunately, Gus had been more interested at playing soldier than politician when growing up. While his grasp of the military was ironclad, his education of the politician intricacies of the Clans and their Houses was lacking. Now, he only had himself to blame.

He thought it might be a minor house from one of the Shallow Sister, and tried to remember more, as he snapped to attention and rendered a crisp salute to the Major (MAJ). An Atlantean salute was the right-hand perfect straight – in what the militarily referred to as a knife hand – then inverted and flipped so the palm was out, with the index finger gingerly touching the corner of the right eyebrow. Like all salutes around the world, it was meant to show respect, and was grown out of the custom of showing someone you were unarmed.

The MAJ returned the salute. “I am Major Yfila, S3 of the ATB, and you, Recruit Drake, are a pain in my ass.”

Gus kept his face composed as he decoded the sentence. The military had a certain way of talking that civilians didn’t understand, and a lot of it had to do with acronyms and abbreviations. S3 was the staff position in charge of operations. ATB was the acronym for the Atlantean Training Brigade, which was the unit assigned to conduct boot for the universal service obligation of all Atlantean citizens.

“Yfila.” Gus did know that name. It was the ruling house of Epevi Island, which was the smallest western island of Atlantis. Being the ruling house of a little island didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but House Yfila had always been loyal to the Drake’s, despite their proximity to the Yinglong’s, and being from the west in general. Gus owed this man respect aside from his rank.

“My apologies, sir.” Gus replied.

“Don’t apologize, just get in the damn truck, recruit!” the frequent emphasis on recruit by the CSM made it clear that boot had already started, so Gus hurried into the front passenger seat of the vehicle. “That’s the major’s seat, dumbass! Drop!”

Anyone who’d seen a movie about any military’s boot camp knew what drop meant. Gus assumed the push-up position and waited for orders to begin. He was never given the order, so he held the position. He could do hundreds of these things without breaking a sweat, so just sitting there wasn’t taxing.

The MAJ ignored him and went to talk to Afu about something. While the CSM bent down and got in Gus’s face. “I’m really going to enjoy this,” the man smiled. “Not every day you get to mold a king.”

Gus didn’t reply, he just looked straight ahead.

“Recover,” the CSM ordered as the MAJ returned. Gus hopped to his feet and got in the back seat.

When he looked around, Afu was gone. The MAJ hopped in the front while the CSM joined Gus. They didn’t say a word to him as the driver gunned it and the convoy departed the airport.

***

Twenty white government buses rounded the corner just as the first rays of sunlight crept over the tree line. It was already thirty-three degrees Celsius, ninety-two Fahrenheit, with ninety percent humidity, and was predicted to get hotter. That was one of the many reasons Gus didn’t want to be part of Class 01-84: the first round of boot to take place after high school graduation. Aside from having to wait another eight weeks to enjoy any semblance of freedom, it was also hotter than hell this time of year. Two things no sane teenager would want to deal with.

The ATB was one of several components of the Atlantean military stationed at Royal Joint Base Central. The name lacked creativity, but it was spot on. It was the most centrally located of the Atlantean military bases, far from the cool ocean breezes, and in the eastern shadow of the Creator’s Hand and the mountain range that split the island in half. To everyone who’d been through boot, they just called it Camp Sweat because that’s all you did there.

As the buses pulled closer, Gus fought the urge to wipe away the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Soon, the salty liquid would run down his face and into his eyes, causing an irritating situation. He’d be expected to suck it up because he was standing at the position of attention, and when at the position of attention, you didn’t move.

The buses pulled past him, only a meter away, until they were all in position. One stopped directly in front of Gus. He didn’t look up, but he knew other eighteen-year-olds were look out the window and thinking: “what the hell is up with this guy”?

The buses shocks hissed as air was released, and the squeaking of unoiled doors swinging open was quickly replaced by angry roars. “Get off my bus! … Find a pair of footprints and stand on them! … Are you waiting for an engraved invitation! … Holy shit my mother moves faster than you lot, God rest her soul! … Can you not count? … Are you retarded? … I’m serious! Answer the damn question! …”

The buses were in-between Gus and the recruits being dressed down for the first time in their lives. Despite the plethora of well-rehearsed insults being slung, Gus kept his face neutral. He was confident someone was watching him.

“Motherfucker, you think you’re so special,” one particularly loud drill sergeant was digging into someone without mercy. “I don’t care what bastard blew his load and disrupted your momma’s menstrual cycle. They allowed you to fester for the last eighteen years into whatever worthless, pathetic thing you are.” The recruit got mouthy in return, and the audible smack of flesh hitting flesh resounded through the morning air. Everything seemed to go silent for a moment, and then, “That’s what I thought,” the drill sergeant’s growl permeated the haze. “Now get your ass in line and shut up. No one gives a shit who you are.”

Gus felt sorry for whoever was the first victim of the military staff’s corporal punishment, but who you were didn’t matter during boot. His father had drilled that into Gus since he was old enough to comprehend what boot was, and it had been reinforced by the CSM and MAJ at the airport.

“Well…” there was one thing that went against that conventional wisdom, and that was him, standing alone, on a single set of neon-yellow footprints at the front and center of the giant recruit formation.

Once the shouting faded away, the buses started up again and rolled away. Gus counted them as they went. When he reached fifteen, he felt a presence next to him, but he didn’t stop staring straight ahead. As the last bus vanished, he was suddenly face-to-face with some very anxious teenagers, who all seemed to be looking directly at him.

“Welcome ladies and gentlemen,” a powerful voice announced from the presence beside him. “My name is Colonel Johnson and I am the commander of this training brigade.” Gus felt the colonel’s (COL) eyes pass over him as he surveyed the new recruits. “Today and tomorrow are the only days you will see me during your training iteration unless you have severely fucked up,” the words came out without a hint of humor. “But rest assured, I am watching you and evaluating you as you move through this constitutionally mandated time in your young lives. With that in mind, I will now introduce your classes commanding officer and class leader, Captain Livingston, and Class Leader Drake.” The respectful silence that had endured through the COL’s speech shattered at the mention of Gus’s name.

The drill sergeants sprang into action, getting right up in recruits’ faces, and smacking a few upside the head who weren’t quick enough to shut their yappers. Gus got a front row view of a man with sergeant (SGT) chevrons practically bowling over a young woman who continued to try and stammer responses to clearly rhetorical questions.

“Shut your cockcobbler, Recruit! If I wanted to hear shit I would have farted!” Gus almost laughed at that one. If all eyes hadn’t been on him before, they were now.

“Zip your lips!” A new, much more pleasant voice announced, and the drill sergeants’ screams ended abruptly.

The click of heels sounded ominously against the asphalt as a tall, dark woman walked through the ranks toward Gus. Technically, an officer moving from the rear of the formation was supposed to go around it, but since the recruit formation went way past Gus’s peripherals, it was probably a necessary time saver for the captain (CPT).

She did a smart about-face and looked over the recruits with a steely gaze. “I am Captain Livingston, your commanding officer, and this is Class Leader Drake, the recruit in charge of your class. Together, we will get through the next eight weeks of basic indoctrination to the royal armed forces of our Kingdom. For those of you who have your eyes set on the royal marines, or royal navy in particular, that does not matter at this junction. Everyone will receive the same training curriculum over the duration of training.” Her voices easily carrier to every ear in the class. “Today is an orientation and introduction to basic military customs and courtesies. You will be expected to learn them on the first iteration and execute them moving forward. If you fail in this basic task, you will be recycled to the next training class, which does not begin until next week. You will not be allowed to go home during the interim. I will find things for you to do, and there is never a shortage of tasks to complete on this base,” she said it conversationally, but Gus knew the tasks would be shittiest of the shit jobs.

“We will begin with a seminar on ranks and responsibilities, followed by drill and ceremony, and ending with grooming standards. Tomorrow we’ll begin with the oath of loyalty for half-blood recruits, and continue from there according to the training schedule. Your drill sergeants will march you over and get you seated in the hangar. You will all be issued one water bottle upon entering the building. Make sure to drink it. Hydration is important out here. It gets hot.” That was an understatement.

The term half-blood might have sounded discriminatory, but it was the legal terminology for some of the recruits in the formation. There were more common terms like norm, more derogatory terms like dirt, and much nastier terms that Gus wouldn’t say out loud. But the essence of the issue was that just because you were born on one of the six islands of Atlantis didn’t automatically make you special in the eyes of the Creator. The Creator had molded his people into being already. Atlanteans had begun to interbreed with other non-indigenous groups as the Kingdom slowly opened up to immigration and re-integrating with the rest of the world. As that happened, the Creator’s touch diminished. As generations became further removed from the Creator’s original design, they lost what made them special in his eyes. As such, those who didn’t rise to the level of uniqueness were required to take a loyalty oath when they arrived at boot. They were also forbidden to travel the world until after training in order to protect the technological advancements of the Kingdom, and the truth about what made some of its population truly special. The oath was much more than words, and would bind the people taking it. Gus didn’t know how it was done. He just knew it worked. Despite calls to change the law, Gus’s father, and Gus himself, saw the necessity of such tactics, so the oath remained in place. It was the King’s call to make and no one else’s.

“You will address the drill sergeants as drill sergeant, not drill sergeant sir, or sir drill sergeant sir, simply drill sergeant. Do you understand?” A haphazard chorus of “yes, ma’ams,” resounded from the recruits. Gus expected her to go off on them, but she didn’t. That wasn’t her job.

“If I call your name, fall out and fall in on the class leader,” the CPT proceeded to read off twenty names. Gus recognized about a third of the surnames as other influential Houses from his political classes back at the palace. Most were completely unknown to him.

As the drill sergeants instructed the rest of the recruits on the finer points of the right-face and forward march, the twenty recruits rushed to form up in front of Gus. To his surprise, several bent the knee to him.

“My liege,” they echoed in unison.

“On your feet, recruits!” the CPT’s composure cracked and frustration warred on her face. The kneeling men and women jumped back to their feet and to attention. “You twenty are the platoon leaders for Class 01-84. For those of you that can count,” a tinge of frustration remained in the officer’s tone, “each platoon is composed of fifty recruits.” She turned to Gus. “Congratulations, Class Leader Drake, you are now in command of an over-strength battalion. You’re going to need this.”

Gus accepted a thin, silver piece of metal about twenty centimeters long. He instantly recognized it as a holographic communications device, more commonly referred to as a holocom. Holocom’s were the most common form of communications equipment owned by his people. Nearly everyone had one, and they served multiple purposes. They were communications equipment, so they could send and receive calls and written messages. They also were popular for wirelessly streaming entertainment from a variety of services. They also had a surprising amount of computing power for something their size, so they were frequently used for business purposes, file storage, and virtually anything else that a tech savvy Atlantean could think of.

Generally, people preferred to own more discrete versions of the product. It was common to have them built into earrings, watches, bracelets, or necklaces. To ensure privacy, so a person didn’t have to project a holographic representation of their caller into thin air in the middle of a crowded street, they were often paired with glasses, photoreactive contact lenses, or in the case of the uber rich and famous, the burgeoning nanotech industry. They had developed a surgery to implant the tiny robots in the brain. They were impossible to feel and projected the calls right into your eyes and ears. Gus could attest to their usefulness; he had the procedure done as his sixteenth birthday present.

Afterward, his grades in school had dropped because of the constant distraction of his classmates messaging him. A subtle threat from his mother, and not so subtle one from his father, involving his eyes being plucked out, prompted him to delve into the settings and features so it didn’t disrupt his daily life.

As Gus accepted the metal rod, he realized how much he’d missed the tech. His nanites had been deactivated for his diplomatic tour due to their technological level, and they hadn’t been turned back on when he got home. “I’m sure father saw to that.” At least he had some way to communicate now.

The CPT must have seen him smile, because the smile that crossed her face was particularly predatory. “This model does not receive anything incoming or outgoing that is not connected to our Secure Military Network (SECNET). This is a tool for all of you to use to retain command and control of your units,” she pulled out twenty smaller models and handed them to the platoon leaders. “Captain Gemma Livingston granting level three read-write access to the following recruits.” She stated loud and clear.

Gus felt a slight buzz as the holocom came out of standby mode. He felt a slight burn as the machine took his fingerprints, a red light leapt from the tip and scanned his iris, and then a toneless male voice asked, “Please state your last name, first name, and rank.”

“Drake, Augustus, Recruit,” Gus obeyed. He hoped the startup sequence would reboot his nanites, but there was no such luck. A holographic screen appeared about the size of a standard legal pad. Code passed across it for a few seconds and then a spreadsheet appeared. Gus’ eyes bulged as tab after tab populated on the bottom.

“As Class Leader, you are responsible for all aspects of your class,” the CPT informed as the other platoon leaders accessed their holocoms. “All these devices are linked, so updates can be made by any and seen by all. It encourages delegation.”

Gus knew the last bit was meant for him. No person could handle everything by themselves, that was why company commanders had executive officer to share the load. Battalions and above had six staff positions, usually with a handful of people in each section working to make each of those functions happen.

“Make no mistake,” the CPT continued, her eyes turning hard as they surveyed the class leadership. “You were assigned these positions because of who you are, but if you fuck up, you will not keep them. The King does not tolerate mediocrity in his military, and I am not going to waste His Majesty’s time if someone can do the job better. Am I understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” they all yelled.

“Good. You all have ten minutes to get acquainted and then you are expected in the hangar for orientation. Class leader on me.” The CPT turned on her heel and Gus followed her a few meters away. “As the Class Leader you are here to set the tone. Neither you or the platoon leaders will be given any leeway or special privileges. You must complete your training tasks to standard along with everyone else in addition to your leadership duties.” As she spoke, the happiness Gus felt at receiving the holocom vanished. “We know all about the extra training you and other clan recruits receive. You’ve learned our organizational structure. You’ve marched and done drill and ceremony since you could walk. You’ve learned basic tactics and strategy, and you’ve been taught leadership principles. We do not expect you to simply skate by and meet the standards for graduation. We expect the future officer corps, and the future King to exceed all expectations,” she’d been talking low to avoid the rest of the platoon leaders hearing the conversation, but she took a step closed, and practically whispered the last bit in his ear. “The drill sergeants and I aren’t going to get in your face, smack you around, and generally make your life a living hell, Prince Drake,” his title was a not used respectfully. “Your fellow recruits are going to do all of that for me.” The smile she gave him was not comforting as she took a step back and looked at her own personal holocam. “Nine minutes seventeen seconds!” she called out and walked away.

Gus just stood there for a second to get his bearings. He knew boot was supposed to be tough, but he was confident he knew everything well enough, and was in good enough shape, to exceed all expectations. Now, not only did he need to do that, but he needed to lead one thousand teenagers on top of it. Suddenly, the next eight weeks got a lot more daunting.

He shook it off before the doubt could creep in. He was down to less than nine minutes, and he needed to get to know his platoon leaders. If things had gone as planned, and he hadn’t been hauled back from LA, the platoon leaders would be people he’d known for most of his life. Those were the positions the important Houses were vying to get their children into. The opportunity to work with the next king at such and early stage, and build the relationships that the struggles of boot forged, was priceless for their children and the future esteem of their Houses.

Instead, Gus only recognized a handful of the people now under his command from his time in high school. Three he knew in passing: one was a close friend he’d known practically since birth, one was his worst enemy, and one was neither friend nor foe, but a constant pain in his ass. The rest he’d be meeting for the very first time.

“Leaders need to be flexible. They need to think outside the box, adapt, and overcome challenges,” he remembered the various leadership lectures he’d been exposed to. The ones the CPT seemed to know all about. “Let’s do this.” He fixed a smile on his face and walked back to make proper introductions.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 329

Eve Berg

Location: North American Eastern Seaboard, Smokey Mountains, United Commonwealth of Colonies

What had been an orderly retreat was becoming a rout, and there was shit-all Eve could do about it. She stopped her bounding, along with what was left of a company of grunts, and turned to face the enemy.

“Set!” she relayed to the next group, as she aimed and fired.

Her graviton cannon splashed into a BAMF’s shield. The things were less than a hundred meters behind them. That was bad. They had to sit and hold here for at least a few minutes so the other companies in their formation could haul ass to another position and then cover them. That was how it was supposed to work, but it was rapidly breaking down into chaos.

“Hold your ground,” she opened a private channel to a fire team of grunts who decided they were going to take off. They had the dignity to stop for a few seconds before resuming their retreat.

It was their funeral. Their movement out from behind cover caught a BAMF’s eye. Its beamer cut a diagonal line through their position. Two of the four grunts’ medical data went black, one was red, and the last green. Whoever the coward was, he wasn’t moving anymore. He’d thrown himself into an impact crater and was hugging dirt.

Eve didn’t have time to chew them a new asshole. She put two more shots from her cannon into the advancing BAMF. The combined fire of fifty guns around her weakened it enough so her final round blasted chunks of armor and flesh. The three-meter monster went down, but she didn’t wait to see if it was dead. It was a target rich environment, and she couldn’t get tunnel vision . . . or think about anything else.

Even thinking about Coop made her heart hurt. She held out hope that he might still be alive, after all, he was a crafty fucker, but it was hard to survive the destruction of a MOUNT. They had a lot of ordinance and a big power supply. When they went down, they went boom. She gave herself a mental shrug and kept fighting. A BAMF beamer cut across her shield, making it spark, and dropping its power-level several percentage points.

This kind of fighting wasn’t sustainable; for her systems, or the grunts around her. That beamer that shaved power off her shield raked across the area forcefield, finally penetrating near the end of the line, and taking off a grunt’s arm. Their armor was doing its best to treat the wound, but being immobile was as good as being dead. The PFC who’d lost her arm and was on the verge of shock was as good as dead.

<Looks like she’ll do the right thing,> Eve half paid attention to the PFC collecting grenades from her squad-mates. She’d use them up close and personal with a BAMF, where there was a better chance of scoring a kill; and a certainty she’d die in the process.

“Set!” came over the net from an LT in charge of the other unit in their game of reverse leapfrog. It used to be the panic-prone LCDR, but he’d bought it in one of the retreats.

She knew she should feel bad, but she didn’t. A lot of people had died today, and it hadn’t even gotten interesting yet. The new LT was much calmer in the face of impending death. It was easier to work with him.

“Moving!” she sent back. “Let’s go people,” she sent a waypoint to the next bit of cover and concealment.

Unlike her, the rest of the grunts were fairly camouflaged by the terrain around the mountain. Trees, shrubs, and even large rocks would hide them from the enemy. As a six-meter hulking MOUNT, she was the target of opportunity for the enemy. She’d barely turned her back to start her rush when multiple beamers tagged her. Her shield dropped precipitously, but she returned the favor. Her chest plate popped opened and several missiles fired out, angled up, and raced back toward the source of those beamers. She was down to precious few of the micromissiles, but there were only a few rushes left, and with her big ass legs, even a quick distraction allowed her to nearly get where she needed to go.

She ate up space with each lumbering step, and made a mental note to ask the engineers of the next iteration of MOUNTs to put jet packs on the damn things. They’d have to make the war machines smaller, but in her opinion, six meters was a hair too much. Maneuverability was a key in battle just as much as strength.

She was nearly to the next chunk of cover when the beamers hit again. It felt like less, so maybe she’d hit something. She spun and fired her cannon, her AI highlighting likely enemy positions. The turn also took pressure off her rear shields. Spreading the load saved her ass . . . literally, the rear shields were down to ten percent power. She laid down fire for the rest of the grunts as she scooted behind a pack of boulders and a jut-out from the mountainside.

<Almost there,> she told herself. Despite offering whatever cover fire she could, grunts’ medical data was blinking out left and right. At least a dozen were picked off on this iteration of the retreat alone.

“Set,” she sent. “LT, make for the entrance. We’ll cover you, sir,” she sent the waypoint to the other element leader. It was two hundred meters for them to haul ass, and more would die, but they didn’t have any time left.

The earth reverberated from the continuous fire of the big guns, but she could hear the difference. One by one, they were being silenced by the enemies’ moving mountain. She didn’t know how they did it, but the ET’s put one hell of a power supply in their armor, and still got it to move. It had wreaked havoc on the Commonwealth troops the few times it had fired into them, but thankfully, it realized the real threat was the mountain’s artillery. That time was coming to an end, and this time they felt it.

A pressure wave blasted them from behind, throwing the grunts around her on their faces, and nearly toppling her as well. Her servos kept her standing, and she trained her electronic eyes up. She didn’t have a word for what she saw. Mudslides usually involved some sort of rain-induced lessening of rocks that made them fall. Rock slides didn’t do what she saw justice.

“Avalanche!” was the best she could come up with. It just wasn’t snow and ice cascading down toward them.

The alien’s latest energy attack on the mountain had done some serious damage. It had silenced at least two Commonwealth guns, and finally broke something holding this portion of the mountain up. Rocks the size of her MOUNT were falling toward their position, the LT’s retreating force, and the entrance to the bunker.

<Fuck!> she knew what she had to do, but she didn’t like it.

It was a leader’s job to prioritize resources. What was needed during the coming fight against the BAMFs? Sadly, it wasn’t a hundred grunts. What the fight needed was her MOUNT. It was true, but she still felt selfish that she had to save herself and leave the men and women she’d been protecting. They’d see it as her turning tail and running, and maybe that was true. All she knew was she was rushing toward the bunker entrance.

Chunks of mountain rained down behind her, and she saw icons go black. Even the enemy’s beamers stopped firing. Why waste power when the planet could do the dirty work for you? She envisioned them laughing, and the anger fueled her. Something big and heavy hit her shoulder. She kept her feet, but stumbled, and lost the swatter attached there. It was a just another hunk of useless metal now.

She kept moving, because stopping meant death. The LT was yelling something at her, but she missed it, and the line soon went dead. Dozens of troops were getting crushed to death, but all she could think about was getting to the entrance. Now was the time for tunnel vision, and her vision literally narrowed to the opening. It was just barely able to fit her MOUNT under ideal circumstances, and these were far from ideal.

She dodged a boulder falling in her path, and leapt over another one. She barely cleared it, despite her own size, which made her feel like the whole mountain was coming down. <Shit!> a hunk of rock fell directly in front of the entrance. She did the only thing she could think of: she blasted it.

Three rounds from her graviton cannon, enough to severely injured or kill a BAMF did the trick on the boulder, but more were heading her way. She would have used the swatter to help turn them to pebbles, but that option was gone. Everything today was just turning to shit.

All she could do was pray, and hope her aim was good enough. She ended up diving into the entrance, just as the meat of the avalanche hit the ground. There was a grating of metal being ground against, and her forward momentum immediately ceased. It was sudden enough, she bounced off the side of her womb and lost a bit of her synch. Everything went fuzzy until her AI reestablished the connection.

Not the it did much good. She was alive, but from the waist down, she was part of a wall of rock blocking the entrance to the bunker. On one hand, that was good. It would make it harder for the enemy to enter the next phase of the battle. However, she was currently face down on the ground, her way of exiting the MOUNT blocked by the earth. As it stood, she wasn’t going to be much help in the coming fight. <Unless . . .?>

“AI, give me full power to shields. Every ounce of juice you have I want pushing against those rocks,” she ordered, and the machine complied.

Even at full power, the pressure of the mountain baring down on her only gave her a half-meter to work with, but it was enough. She torqued her body around, so her chest was facing up. She almost got her legs around before the shield failed, and tons upon tons of rock smashed back into her.

“Good enough,” she told herself as she hit the button to start unassing herself from the MOUNT. She figured she had time. Plus, she wanted a minute or two to compose herself before she was out of her home of the last month.

She wasn’t sure if her face was covered in sweat or tears.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 328

Sonya Berg

Location: CWS Agincourt, Alpha Centauri, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Terror; absolute, primal terror coursed through her as she sat on the flag bridge of the battleship and had no hand in her own fate. <How do people deal with this?> she wondered as Aggie rumbled beneath her.

“Magazine’s depleted, sir,” the weapons OIC relayed to Ward.

The ADM didn’t reply. His eyes were on the solid block of missile icons flying across space toward the enemy fleet. The operations order called for the entire fleet to empty their magazines at the enemy starting at their maximum effective range. Battleships carried a lot of missiles, and dozens of broadsides burst out of Aggie and her sisters. They raced toward their targets, their silicon brains doing everything in their power to seek and destroy the enemy. The problem was, the enemy’s EW was significant, their ships massive, and their point defense impressive to say the least. The enemy had no missiles, they concentrated their entire offensive and defensive weapons compliment on energy weapons. The more Sonya thought about it, the more it looked like that was going to be the future.

The missiles were more of a distraction than offensive weapons. They hurtled across millions of kilometers and died by the thousands. Still, when you were talking about tens of thousands of rounds going downrange, that meant plenty got through.

Over a dozen enemy ships died as focused antimatter blasts smashed into them. The kill ratio was abysmal, and the amount of money concentrated in the attack, which would decimate entire pre-hegemony navies, even crack open worlds with its destructive power, was staggering. Better not to think about the billions of credits wasted to kill a measly dozen ships, and focus on what came next.

Thousands of Commonwealth, Blockie, and Euro warships descended on less than two hundred enemies. Aggie was in the middle of the formation, on a flank, to ensure if the enemy killed the High Admiral at the formation’s center, Ward would be able to take over operational command. As the battle was joined in earnest by both sides, the chance of that happening became greater and greater.

That’s when the terror set in. Despite a detailed battle plan, contingencies, and contingencies for the contingencies, everything still degraded into utter madness. Sonya sat there and watched as thousands of spacers were killed every second . . . thousands! Life was blotted out like a speech writer hitting the delete key on a disappointing draft.

The enemy oriented their front toward the approaching human fleet and concentrated all their shields forward. Then they charged. It was the unforgivable naval error of crossing the T; although the aliens seemed to be doing it willingly, and Sonya soon learned why. When in the past, it meant a ship facing the full broadside of the enemy with only their bow cannons to return fire, which left them vulnerable and ceded fire superiority to the enemy. The aliens did not share those disadvantages. With all their power directed forward, their mighty bow cannons delivered untold destruction on the human ships. Even with the upgraded shields, a battleship could only sustain two hits from the massive guns; a third holed the workhorses of humanity’s navies from stem to stern. The enemy quickly figured this out, and meticulously bored a hole into the center of the formation. Whether they knew where Gilmore’s flagship was, or just guessed, Sonya would never know; but it was soon evident they would decapitate the Commonwealth leadership inside a half hour if this continued.

While the enemy’s tactics were formidable, and their weapons deadly, they had their flaws. “We’re ordered to their flanks to divert their power from those monster guns and shields,” Ward didn’t sound upset about the tasking. He might be an old war dog, a fighter to the end, but there was a difference between that and suicide. “Go to a hundred and ten percent on the reactors,” he ordered as he laid in the course, and Sonya watched as several strike groups detached along with Aggie’s escorts.

The enemy watched them at first, content to rip into the guts of the human formation like wild, starving hyenas having their first meal in a week. Through it all, the human fleet was scoring some wins. Thirty-two enemy ships had already died from weight of fire brought to the table by the Commonwealth. Those frontal shields might be the strongest ever recorded by human sensors, but there were only so much you could do as the distance between the fleets closed, and when thousands of guns targeted a handful of ships.

Sonya watched as another enemy ship stuttered and died under the force of human energy weapons. It didn’t explode, but it began to list lazily out of formation. Without any acceleration, it quickly fell behind the rest of the enemy force, and began an awkward spin on its axis. She watched in momentary fascination at the enemy warship’s demise until a status change caught her attention.

“We’ve got company,” the operations OIC announced. “They’re detaching a dozen ships on an intercept course.”

“Well, they were going to do it sooner or later,” Ward huffed.

Sonya was surprised they’d waited this long. With their forward shields taking all the power their flanks were completely exposed. The only thing between them and death was very thick armor; much thicker than a battleship judging by the debris recovered from previous engagements. Still, anything made of matter could be destroyed if enough force was applied. Those alien’s massive war machines would have been putty in Ward’s destructive hands no matter how big they were.

A dozen ships didn’t seem like a large flank guard, but knowing their capabilities, the Commonwealth strike groups were in for a handful. They numbered just over fifty battleships spread through five different strike groups. All the groups had lost ships in the initial skirmishes. Their light escorts units would be useless in a fight against the aliens, and were using their speed and acceleration advantages to put more space between both the enemy and strike groups. Their new orders were to get into earth orbit and see if they could link with the Commonwealth ground forces and provide fire support. If they could soften up things for the planned landing efforts, that would be optimal, <If there are going to be any landings,> she reminded herself. Nothing was decided yet, and getting too far ahead of herself could prove deadly.

“Let’s keep it loose people,” Ward ordered. “Space it out, don’t let them get a bead on too many of us.” In their narrow battlespace, all the ships would be able to bring all their weapons to bear. It actually worked to their advantage as the enemy would need to shield their entire ships from angles of fire from every direction. If Ward could keep his ships from getting hit, then they had a fighting chance. As it stood, their numerical advantage wasn’t enough.

Probing shots began at a half a million kilometers. With weapons only moving at the speed of light, and no way to maneuver like missiles, it was easy to dodge. A second of maneuvering could put a ship tens, or even hundreds, of kilometers from where it had been. It was an exercise in skill for the gunnery teams, and some hits were scored. None were fatal on either side, but that changed as the distance fell. Soon beams of kinetic force and unbearable heat would be striking ships nearly the instant they were fired. That was true for both sides, and Sonya held her breath until the range fell to that range and the real battle began.

<Madness. Complete and utter madness,> she thought as a blinding light enveloped her and everything around her.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: North American Eastern Seaboard, Smokey Mountains, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Coop hugged the mountain like a burglar in the night trying to avoid detection. He was about as successful as a six-meter war machine could be, as he retreated toward the entrance. He’d called for reinforcements as the battalions charged with holding the line were chipped away into nothing. Thousands lay dead at his feet from beamer, blaster, and artillery fire . . . and more fire still came his way. He launched the last of his missiles into the scared landscape and got the satisfaction of taking down a pair of BAMFs whose shields were still down from the latest artillery exchange.

Those reinforcements were denied. The brass decided to fight it out in the close quarters of the bunker complex then continue to exchange fire in the open where the enemy were more vulnerable. Coop was sure they had all sorts of nasty surprises waiting for the alien fuckers down in those cramped tunnels; he just needed to get there.

The entrance was still three hundred meters off and he was having trouble getting there. The great mountain behind him was scarred and whittled away by the intense fighting. In some places the bunkers external structure was poking through. That was how heavy the fighting had been. He skulked, trying to use the debris and smoke for cover, but that didn’t work well with modern sensors. Beamer fire sliced through the smoke and missed him by centimeters. He fired a burst from his gav-cannon and broke into a sprint. After three seconds, he dove behind a pile of rubble; going prone. A trio of beamers smashed into the wall in front of his position. He got to his feet and sprayed the area with his swatters. They wouldn’t do more than keep the enemy’s head down as he scurried forward.

A fourth beam struck out, damaging his leg actuator. Red icons blinked in his vision and his MOUNT stumbled and collapsed in the open. Pain seized his mind, but he still had enough muscle memory to lay down some cover fire to protect himself. His swatters ran dry and all he half left was his cannon. He fired shot after shot, trying to get back to his feet, and stumbling forward. He had to drag his useless leg, which ironically, was the same leg that currently sported a peg-leg with. He was still a hundred meters out when beams slammed into his back. His shields held, but he wasn’t going to make it another fifty meters under their weight of fire. They’d tear him open like a can opener. He threw himself back to the ground so the beamers blasted over him and blew chunks out of the mountain.

They stopped after a second and fired a few probes in his general direction. None hit him as he lay on the ground, but the aliens weren’t stupid enough to expose themselves to come check on him. They knew what a MOUNT could do, and respected the threat. Coop hated them for it, but couldn’t blame them. <You always hope for stupid enemies, but you don’t always get what you want,> he just hope they gave him enough time for some of his shield to recharge.

He thought for a moment about how he’d gotten to this point in his life. It wasn’t all bad. He was a hard-charging, ass-kicking, lean, mean killing machine. He’d seen several campaigns. Fought all types of foes; both human and alien, and so far, come out on top. He’d also come out on top in life. He’d found the woman of his dreams, had a baby on the way, and, until a few weeks ago, a full life to live and enjoy. As he lay on the ground, he knew he couldn’t have it all, but he could damn well make sure some of the things he loved made it.

He came up with a plan; crazy, stupid, and probably with a one percent chance of working; but hell, something was better than nothing.

“Eve, I’m going to try something stupid,” he sent over the comms channel that had been dark for nearly an hour. He didn’t even remember how long he’d been fighting. “I’ll see you soon. One way or another. Ballboy, out.”

“This course of action is . . .” the AI was momentarily speechless. Something, he didn’t think was possible. “I will do my part.”

“Thanks,” he gave the MOUNT a pat inside his armored womb. “This is the end, old buddy.”

He took a few seconds to gather the balls to do what he was about to do. A few deep breaths, maybe his final ones, and he lurched to his feet. The enemy knew exactly where he was, so they were waiting with their beamers. It felt like a dozen of the damn things targeted him as he ran and fired blindly behind him. It was poor tactics, but he wasn’t going to waste precious seconds turning to look where he was firing.

“Shields at twenty . . . twelve . . . three percent. Breach!” the AI announced calmly as beamers pierced the protective energy layers and smashed into metal.

The metal held long enough for him to cover another twenty meters, and then he felt a jolt at the beamer’s continuous output smashed into the second layer of shielding around his womb. <It’s now or never,> he hit the preprogrammed overrides and made sure he was oriented properly. <Here goes nothing,> he didn’t have time to pray to ancient deities in the sky before explosive bolts built into the armor ignited.

Behind him, the six-meter hulk of humanity’s greatest fighting machine froze like a statue. Coop was anything but frozen. He was violently propelled forward inside the womb as it ejected from the MOUNT. The metal, shielded ball flew into the mountainside with a crunch; only a handful of meters from the angled entrance to the bunker.

<Ten . . . nine . . . > he grunted as he hit the quick release and the womb opened to dump him on the ground like some newborn.

Fresh pain flared through him. Ejection was not designed to be pleasant. It was designed to keep you alive. Coop was alive, but his IOR told him he’d broken two reinforced ribs, dislocated his shoulder, and would be black and blue over a quarter of his body in a few hours.

<Pain is good,> he told himself as he continued the mental countdown. < Six . . . five . . .,> he didn’t have long.

MOUNTs were not designed to be taken by the enemy; human or otherwise. The tech in them was top secret, code-word protected, and the Commonwealth and Gold Technologies didn’t want that falling into anyone’s hands. They’d been told early in training once you ejected you had ten seconds to get the fuck away, or else.

Beamer fire intensified, burning holes through the motionless MOUNT, but Coop didn’t care. That’s what he wanted to happen. He wanted the big bucket of bolts to draw fire from his injury-prone, squishy body. The longer the aliens fired at a useless hunk of metal alloy, the safer he was.

He tried to get to his feet, but his legs didn’t want to work; which was made that much more difficult with only one foot. Quickly abandoning the attempt, he kicked and crawled as fast as he could to reach the safety of the tall alcove, and more importantly, open bunker door.

A pair of grunts, who looked like they were on the verge of shitting their pants, were waving frantically at Coop to hurry the fuck up. He was doing the best he could, and had just reached the protective ledge of the alcove when time ran out. The MOUNT went up like the Fourth of July on steroids. Coop felt the concussive blast pick him up, as light and heat washed over him. He didn’t even have time to scream before darkness reached out and claimed him.

 

***

 

Eve Berg

Location: North American Eastern Seaboard, Smokey Mountains, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“No!” Eve’s scream came from her very soul as Coop’s indicator flashed black in her vision.

Not that she had time to let the shock take hold or give it much thought. She’d be joining him soon if she didn’t get her shit together.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 327

Eve Berg

Location: North American Eastern Seaboard, Smokey Mountains, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Fall back by company!” the LCDR yelled over the net in panic.

<Shut the fuck up!> Eve kept the reply to herself, but grit her teeth in anger. They had the enemy pinned and confused in their L-shaped ambush. They should be pushing now; showing a little violence of action, but the colossal alien tank was moving in.

She ignored the moving mountain as the BAMFs finally got their shit together. Most of the roaches were dead, killed by the mines and thermobaric artillery barrage, so the BAMFs were in full-rampage mode. That’s good. One of the bigger monsters’ charged straight toward the linchpin in the L-shape; right where Eve was standing. The grunts and HI around her hammer the ET with everything they had. A rainbow of color splashed the enemy’s shield but it kept coming.

<Wait for it,> she told herself as the nightmarish creature roared and powers through the incoming fire. <Wait for it.>

The BAMF was firing. The grunts in their entrenched position were well-defended, but they still took casualties. Men and women were torn apart at the BAMF’s beamers slams into, and pierced, the squad-level shields. When it was close enough, the alien leapt into the air, beamer on continuous blast in one hand, while it drew it’s wicked-looking dagger in another.

<Bingo,> Eve had been tracking the enemy, and unloaded on it with her graviton cannon. The heavy ball of projectile gravity smashed into the BAMF’s weakened shield, penetrated, and blew chunks of the creature’s armor and torso into the air, while arresting its forward movement and throwing it backward. It dropped dead a dozen meters from the grunt’s front lines. They cheered the enemy’s death, but didn’t have time to celebrate. They shifted fire and kept bringing the heat.

Eve watched her sensor and saw the company farthest forward start to pull back. They’d filter behind the main defensive line and pull back to reinforce the shorter length of the L-shaped ambush. Gradually, all the companies on the long edge would pull back, until it shifted from an ambush to a blocking force. Depending on how the engagement commenced, they’d start to pull back from the blocking formation if things went to shit.

As if the universe was waiting for her permission, the first retort of the enemy’s mobile mountain split the air. The ball of energy discharged landed short, due to the friendly aliens being in close proximity, but it still killed several grunts with proximity splash, and acted as a giant flash-bang to the entire battlefield. Sensors went haywire, and Eve was forced to rely on her eyes to continue engaging the enemy.

Another sharp retort echoed through the air as the Commonwealth bunker’s heavy guns engaged the enemy. A second eruption of light as the big artillery round smashed into the enemy’s shield. It fails to penetrate, but it made a hell of a show.

<Hopefully, they’d be busy for a while,> she was more than happy to let the heavyweights duke it out. She needed to focus on killing as many BAMFs as she could.

She charged up her next-gen magnetic accelerator, aimed it right into the center of the enemy formations, and let loose. The air ignited as the round traveled downrange, smashing through weakened shields and bodies as it passed. Eventually, it hit something important that went boom. Her AI alerted her to the failure of an enemy area-shield, so she relayed the data to the HI troopers. The fire mission occurred in seconds, and more thermobaric rounds blew the enemy to smithereens.

<We could win this,> she thought, just as an earth-shattering crack echoed behind her. She looked back and saw a chunk of the mountain sloshing off the range like dead skin off a burn victim. <Well fuck.>

Sensing an opportunity, the enemy artillery turned its big guns on the Commonwealth soldiers and opened fire.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: North American Eastern Seaboard, Smokey Mountains, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“Fuckety fuck fuck,” Coop’s MOUNT ate up the distance as he sprinted across the battlefield.

“Someone help!” the LT in command of the company on the left flank yelled as his troops continued to get slaughtered.

“I’m coming,” Coop replied evenly as he hurtled a small gorge and took beamer fire up the ass. Thankfully, his shield was full strength back there. “Stay calm,” he tried to talk the panicking officer down. “Keep sending fire missions to the bunker’s gunnery teams. They’ll fire danger close, so make sure to keep your head down.”

“They’re only fifty meters away. Jesus . . . I just lost all of second squad.” The man was on the verge of hyperventilating.

“Almost there,” Coop pushed his MOUNT as fast as he could. He crested a rise, his big metal ass making a giant target for anyone who bothered to look up.

His AI processed the battle in front of him quicker than he ever could. Under the protection of an artillery barrage, the ET’s had moved close to a company-sized force to the flanks and was giving the Commonwealth the squeeze. The troops there were well entrenched, supplied, and trained; despite the LT shitting his pants at the moment. They were holding on by their fingernails, but it didn’t take a genius to tell that the BAMFs numbers and weight of fire were just too much. If they didn’t get any help soon . . .

The AI analyzed the scene and targeting icons popped into Coop’s vision He didn’t question the AI. It had literally saved his ass. He just hit accept on the authorization request. Over a dozen micro-missiles popped free of his chest plate and screamed toward the enemy positions. They went from zero to hypersonic in the blink of an eye. Coupled with their explosive packages, they tore toward the enemy’s right flank. It was a risk to shoot across the enemy’s entire formation, but he had to take it. If he could make the push falter on the edge of the maneuvering element, that might give the Commonwealth grunts enough time to recover and counterattack.

The risk cost him forty percent of his missiles to anti-missile fire, but that still meant over half a dozen made it through. They went off with a boom, and brought the push to a halt. Only two BAMFs went down, due to already depleted shields, but it was enough of a shock to make the remaining forces look for cover . . . and then the fire mission finally arrived.

The earth shook beneath him; enough that his servos whined to keep him upright. As the shockwave spread, a mushroom cloud of destruction rose from the place where a tight grouping of explosive shells and energy beams had torn into the enemy formation. Over a dozen BAMFs were obliterated, and many more roaches were barbequed in the resulting destruction. The resulting confusion of BAMFs going berserk added to the offensive being broken. People still died as the BAMFs mindlessly fired their beamers and blasters into friendly positions, but it looked like the LT could handle it from here. The battalion commander was already moving a squad from their reserve troops to reinforce the flank. It looked like Coop had saved the day again.

“Ballboy, reposition to sector seven. We’ve got incoming artillery, and expect another push,” a comms specialist back in the bunker relayed.

“On it,” he pivoted on his big metal legs and started to crest the rise again to head back into the thick of it.

With one foot midair, all of his sensors suddenly blacked out. It felt like god himself had given Coop a push. The MOUNTs servos were unable to compensate, and he was flung forward, down the small hill, and toward the gorge he’d leapt over before. He felt the MOUNT smack chest-first into the ground and slide several meters before hitting a boulder that brought him to a stop.

“What the fuck was that?” he asked out loud.

“I’ve detected a massive energy discharge,” the AI’s voice sounded fuzzy, like it was trying to talk through static. “Rebooting systems.”

Seconds meant everything in combat, so the three it took for the sensors to come back online was way too long for his taste. Reality blinked back into existence, so he rolled to his side and came up with his graviton cannon scanning.

He didn’t find any targets, but . . . “Rear shields are down to ten percent,” the AI offered, which blew Coop’s mind. He’d only taken the beamer to the ass. How could he . . .?

“Incoming,” the AI warned, just as a downpour of soil and debris crashed down on him. His shields acted as an umbrella, so it didn’t touch him, but the sight of debris falling like rain for nearly twenty seconds underscored whatever had happened had been big.

“Bunker?” he inquired, but didn’t get a reply. His own sensors showed the energy discharge in the area was high, and it would take several minutes to clear enough to get comms back online.

Coop went to crest the rise and see what the hell had tossed him like yesterday’s leftovers, but there wasn’t a rise anymore. There was a crater. It spanned nearly a hundred meters and was still smoking. Part of the mountain was even gone. He could see the reinforced structure of the bunker still steaming, and imagined the whole place reeked of ozone. As for the company whose asses he’d just saved. They were just gone.

<Fuck!> this could only mean one thing.

So far, the enemy’s orbital bombardments were sporadic at best, and usually only focused on occupying the bunker’s mountain guns when they were moving troops. The LCDR suspected it was because they weren’t a big target in the grand scheme of things. They were a small-to-medium sized bunker complex, and not a threat to anything not directly in front of them. Apparently, that had changed.

<On the bright side, they took out their own people as well,> he tried to see the positive. He couldn’t think about the eighty troops they’d just lost. He still had a lot of fighting to do.

Several minutes later, he got a signal from the bunker. They confirmed a ship from orbit had taken a shot at them. Apparently, Eve was making their lives on the western front a living hell, and they wanted to put the puny human’s in their place. Everyone on the line was showing the ETs that they weren’t going to roll over and die.

 

***

 

Sonya Berg

Location: CWS Agincourt, Sol System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“This is it,” Sonya stood next to ADM Ward on the flag bridge of Aggie. A damage control tech was still putting out a small fire on a control console and working on rerouting the wiring to get the sensor’s feed back up.

“Yep,” Ward answered calmly, as the might of the human fleet lined up against the alien invaders.

All the maneuvering and delaying for time was done for the ETs. They’d gathered everything they could and were sitting in the middle of the least-time-approach to Earth. Several of the Commonwealth task forces had been bloodied in the push forward, but they were now flanked by their Blockie and Euro counterparts. They were a mass of human ingenuity waiting to seriously fuck up the people who invaded their home.

Gilmore was set to give a ra-ra speech, but Sonya and Ward didn’t much care. They were studying the enemy, trying to figure out what they were going to do. They had advantages in acceleration, offensive, and defensive systems; but the human ships outnumbered them significantly.

“A lot of people are about to die,” she said with a sigh. Aggie was deep enough in the formation she might survive.

“We who are about to die salute you,” Ward quoted with a grin.

Sonya knew the reference, and felt a little like the gladiators of old. “Fuck it,” she breathed out all her anxiety. “Let’s get this over with.”

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