Two Worlds – Chapter 278

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“Easy…easy…shit,” Coop cursed as they slid down the side of an embankment. SSG Hightower and Mike were still supporting him, but they were tired. They’d been prisoners for some time, and then forced to drag his injured ass across the entire city and into the farmland around it. Coop knew he’d be bitching up a storm by now if he had to carry so much dead weight, so he had to give respect where respect was due.

That didn’t stop him from spewing a bunch of four-letter words over the IOR when he hit the ground. An agonizing jolt of pain pushed through the drugs that had been pumped into his system and he collapsed out of his team members’ grips.

“Shut the fuck up,” the SSG hissed as he laid against the berm with his weapon pointed up.

A pair of drones rocketed overhead. They banked hard and came back the way they’d come. Coop curled up, hoping his LACS would protect him from the rounds the drones would put into their little group. A steady stream of burps echoed around them as the drones took precision shots.

None of them hit the combat-ineffective SRRT team. Coop still felt the vibrations as the rounds tore up another embankment about fifty meters from them. The drones split away in opposite direction with a howl of their thrusters, and Coop gave himself a pat down just to make sure he was still alive.

“About a dozen Windsor’s were moving parallel to us,” the SGM informed as the popped his head up and ran a scan of their surroundings. “Drones took them out. Come on. Let’s keep moving. Almost there.” The NCOIC hefted Sullivan’s corpse onto his shoulder and started moving again. Of everyone, the SGM was carrying the most weight.

Coop waited for GYSGT Cunningham to grab Eve and help her up. The LT stood nearby to help, and Coop and his helpers brought up the rear. They moved along the small drainage ditch for a few hundred meters before climbing up and over the road to the opposite side. Coop half expected Windsor drones to bear down on them and blow them to pieces, but it seemed the Commonwealth had air superiority in this sector.

They slid down a slope on the opposite side much more gracefully that the last one, and a waypoint appeared on his HUD. There was a small hill less than a kilometer away that was their rendezvous point.

<About fucking time,> Coop was starting to feel woozy.

Medical nanite degradation. Tourniquet application required, flashed on his HUD before more pain ripped through his injured leg. He screamed as the built-in medical device tightened just below him.

Hightower grunted as their gait was disrupted and ran a quick medical check. He cursed the timing, but kept prodding Coop along. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel helped.

Twenty minutes later, the SSG and Mike happily dropped Coop on his ass on the backside of the hill away from the fighting. “So we just sit here nursing our thumbs with our assholes until these RECON marines decide to show up.” Coop couldn’t feel anything on his injured leg anymore, which wasn’t a good sign.

“This is supposed to be an elite SRRT team,” an accented voice announced over TACCOM. “I’m not impressed.”

STRATCOM pinged the speaker at under twenty meters away, and made Coop flush with embarrassment. His situational awareness was shit right now. Two RECON marines in V3 LACS low crawled out from underneath a cammo-net set up at the apex of the hill. If Coop had to guess they were forward observers providing target coordinates to the brigade artillery and orbital assets.

“Stow it, Master Sergeant,” the SGM cut RECON off before everyone got in a dick measuring contest. “We’ve been through a bit over the past few weeks.”

“Weeks?” the other RECON marines finally spoke. “I guess…” they finally caught sight of the rest of the SRRT team, “Daaaaamn.” What was clearly a junior NCO or enlisted RECON stated.

Coop didn’t fault him for his reaction. Eve was missing an arm, he had a giant spike through his leg, and Sullivan was dead with a spike through his chest. They’d clearly been through some shit.

“Medivac is on the way,” the senior RECON stated with more respect this time. “We’ve got to get back to work,” they two marines retreated back to their OP.

They were true to their word and fifteen minutes later a Spyder swooped down for them. They trudged up the ramp as technicians and medics swarmed them. Coop collapsed onto the deck as the bird took flight again. He caught a brief view of the ongoing battle before the ramp snapped closed and the engines gunned it to make orbit without getting blasted out of the sky.

Maybe it was the drugs, trauma, finally getting Eve back, or just battlefield fatigue, but Coop found himself laughing and crying at the same time. He made sure no one saw what was going on inside his armor. He’d never be able to live that down.

The small view of the battle he caught struck him as sad and inspiring. It had been thousands of years since man first gathered to form civilization and ended up fighting in the first wars. Weapons had changed from rock throwing, spears, and wooden shields to EM power rifles, orbital bombardments from capital ships a few kilometers long, and energy shields that could stop a railgun round but not a rock that one of their ancestors would chuck at them.

Despite all of the changes in weapons, defenses, and tactics, it still involved two groups of men and women, advancing across an open plain, and trying to kill each other. If there was an unalienable truth to humanity, Coop was sure it was that they would always try to kill each other. Even aliens hadn’t changed that. In fact, they was only giving humans better ways to do it.

<As long as I’m the one doing the killing and not the dying that’s fine by me,> Coop gave a mental sigh and composed himself as technicians opened up his damaged armor and medics treated his wound. <Maybe I’ll take a nap now.> The medics must have given him something because he was fast asleep before they popped him out of the LACS.

 

***

 

Location: CWS Agincourt, Harper’s Junction, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Coop was violently thrust into consciousness. All around him medical devices beeped, hissed, and thumped; coupled with the hushed-but-hurried tones of doctors and nursed. Despite the abrupt arrival in the world of the living, he kept his eyes closed.

“We shouldn’t be bringing him out just yet, we need things to set more,” a woman’s voice tainted with anger spoke a few meters to his left.

“We don’t have a choice. We’ve got our orders. Plus if he stays in the grav-chair there won’t be an issue. This is just a patch job until we can get him back to a ground-side hospital,” a man’s voice replied.

The woman huffed then the clink of a privacy screen being pulled back, and the assault of artificial light on Coop’s eyelids made him groan.

“Good you’re awake,” the woman hit her PAD and the bed tilted upward until Coop was sitting at a ninety degree angle. It gave him a great view of his leg missing below the hip.

“WHAT THE FUCK!” he roared loud enough for the woman to unconsciously step back. “WHERE IS MY LEG?!” He turned on the doctors with murder in his eyes.

“Sergeant,” the woman had two gold stripes on her collar, and was trying to act the part of a CMDR. “The damage to your leg from the still-unidentified Windsor weapon was extreme. The heat and force of the spike had fused your leg to your armor. To get you out of the armor and into treatment we needed to remove your leg. A replacement is currently being grown, and will be ready once Agincourt returns to New Washington. At the Naval Hospital in the capital you will have the best surgeons in the world to replace your leg and rehabilitate you to peak physical condition.”

Coop knew that. This wasn’t the first time he’d lost a limb, but waking up and finding that limb missing was going to haunt his dreams for months.

The CMDR snapped her fingers when it became apparent he’d stopped listening to her. “This is very important,” she repeated. “We’re going to help you into a grav-chair so you can report as ordered, but you will not, I repeat, you will not get out of it. The nanites and Insta-flesh are still setting from your removal procedure and I don’t want you to rip something and bleed to death.”

“Got it, Doc. Bleeding to death equals bad.” Coop was still focused on his missing leg.

The CMDR rolled her eyes and helped shift his bulk, with the other doctor’s help, to the edge of the bed and a waiting grav-chair. The chair hovered a few centimeters off the ground waiting for him. He waved off the doctors and swung himself over the edge and into the chair. The chair gave a groan and smacked down into the ground before recalibrating for his extra mass. Slowly, it rose to its previous position.

“Look at your fat ass breaking stuff,” a familiar voice joked as Eve pushed her way through the privacy screen. She had what was left of her missing arm mag-locked to the front of her CMUs. The dressing on it was fresh, and a lot better than the field-improvised first-aid Coop had performed.

“How’s it going, stumpy?” he asked.

“Not too bad, gimpy,” she shot back.

“Ouch, low blow,” he retorted.

“You’re lucky that spike hit so low or the removal procedure would have caused us some serious problems,” she winked.

“Oh shit,” his hands flew to his package, “oh thank god.”

“Don’t thank him yet,” Eve grimaced.

Messages started to ping in Coop’s head as his IOR activated again. His mailbox transplanted over his vision and one stood out above the rest: an immediate order to report to Admiral Ward’s office.

“Admiral Ward?” He didn’t know the man other than him being an Admiral and de-facto big kahuna.

“Jesus, Coop,” Eve stepped behind him and started pushing his chair forward. “Admiral Michael Ward, the Hero of Yangon, the man who just took back Harper’s Junction from the Windsor’s. People are starting to call him Nimitz reincarnate.”

“Nitwit, what kind of name is that…” he was cut off as she smacked the back of his head. “I’m just saying that we had a fair deal to do with retaking Harper’s Junction,” he continued. “No one is going to declare it Mark Cooper day since I’ve only got chevrons on my shoulder.”

“Just…don’t embarrass me,” Eve sighed as she pushed his chair into a lift and keyed in a code. The lift rumbled into motion, and didn’t stop at every deck, which was weird for a warship the size of Agincourt.

The lift beeped and the doors opened into a corridor just outside the thickly armored flag bridge. Eve pushed him forward and knocked on a door across the corridor from the bridge’s guarded entrance.

“Enter,” a tired voice replied.

“Sir, Sergeant Berg and Sergeant Cooper reporting as ordered, sir,” Eve snapped to the position of attention, but didn’t salute because she was missing he saluting arm. Coop remained seated, but sat up a little straighter.

“At ease,” the man sitting behind the desk had blue in his eyes, looked distinguished, handsome, had both legs, both arms, and was everything Coop expected of a full Admiral. “Good to see you, Eve. It’s been a while. Your mother told me to relay her gratitude that you didn’t die.”

“Thank you, sir,” Eve didn’t skip a beat despite the awkward exchange.

“Sergeant Cooper. Just the man I wanted to see,” the ADM’s eyes turned on Coop and lost what little warmth they had when directed at Eve. “I should have you thrown out an air locked and jettisoned into the nearest star.”

The barb cut deep. Deeper because Coop had no idea what it was about.” “Sir?” he didn’t know what else to say.

“Sergeant Major,” the ADM called, and their NCOIC popped into the room. “Play the recording.”

The recording from Coop’s V4 popped into a holo in the center of everyone. It played from the point the SRRT rescued its imprisoned members to the point where the Windsor mech backed out of the hole it in the wall with the HVT.

“Sir?” Coop repeated, still not knowing what to say. He considered pointing out the video conveniently cut off before a grenade-propelled spike fucked up his leg, but the ADM didn’t look like he was in a joking mood.

“What was your mission, Sergeant Cooper?” the ADM inquired.

Coop thought back. “Well, sir, our original mission was to Splitstream in, coordinate with the locals to pass intel back to the fleet about the conditions on the ground. That evolved to linking up with rebels and assisting with their counterinsurgency. That, in turn, evolved into sabotaging infrastructure and the enemy’s ability to respond to your fleet’s arrival. After we completed that, we took the initiative to rescue our captured team mates and destroy the elements of the enemy’s command and control that we could. Then…”

“Let’s focus on the last bit,” it looked like the ADM was biting his tongue. “You were participating in a decapitation strike in the center of Windsor power on the planet…”

“If I may, sir.” Surprisingly, the SGM cut off the ADM. That the SGM was a bad ass motherfucker was the only thing that saved him from an ass chewing. “The mission was to rescue our captured team members. We made some situational assessments once that portion of the mission was completed to search for any HVTs in the palace and attempt to kill or capture them,” the NCO clarified.

“The issue at hand, Sergeant, if you haven’t grasped it yet, was the total lack of aggression in trying to capture and kill that HVT.” The ADM clarified.

It took a moment for Coop to digest what the ADM was saying, and then he nearly jumped out of his grav-chair to strangle the man. “Who the fu…”

Sir,” Eve cut in while simultaneously hitting a switch that mag-locked Coop to the chair. He couldn’t even pull his arms off the armrests much less strangle the ADM. “There are many extenuating circumstances of the encounter we witnessed that dictated our situational-dependent response.”

The SGM kept a straight face, but Eve had just used the best-case diplomatic speak to tell a navy fleet puke that he didn’t know his head from his asshole when it came to ground combat; especially ground combat against a Windsor mech. The ADM wasn’t a stupid man, so he understood that, and his face hardened in response.

“First off, sir, there was no way Sergeant Cooper could have taken out that HVT without getting himself and everyone else killed. “He used an ingenious method to force a stalemate with an ultimatum he was not able to carry out. Sergeant Cooper was able to save lives, my life to be specific, and I am very grateful for that.” The emphasis Eve put on the “I” seemed to suggest someone else would be happy with the outcome as well.

The ADM’s eyes were still hard, but his face finally slackened. “Do you know who that was, Sergeant?” He turned back to Coop.

“She said she was some baroness,” Coop shrugged.

“That was Josephina Barrow. Or as she was better known on Harper’s Junction, Queen Josephina. If you want to go back just a bit, she was the Chief of Intelligence for the Star Kingdom of Windsor. You, Sergeant Cooper, single handedly let go the woman who led the invasion against Harper’s Junction, ruled over the planet when it was stolen from us, and until recently, was the most important intelligence operative the Windsor’s had.”

All this hit Coop like a hammer. He slumped in his chair and took a few deep breaths before looking up at Eve. One look at her face and the weight lifted. “Sorry, sir, but I wouldn’t change my decision making process,” he replied confidently.

The ADM just shook his head, but Coop swore he saw a glint of approval in the SGM’s eyes. Eve went even farther and gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze.

“Unfortunately for you, Sergeant Cooper, people with more experience and responsibility disagree. As such, you have been reassigned after you complete your rehabilitation and your restrictive duty is lifted. You will be reduced to the rank of corporal. A review board convened and determined since you did not earn the rank of sergeant, and are no longer a member of an SSRT team, you may not retain it.” The ADM landed body blow after body blow on Coop, but Coop just took it. Eve squeezed his shoulder after each blow landed. “Sergeant Berg,” the ADM returned his attention to Eve. “You are also being reassigned, but on the recommendation of your commanding officer and Sergeant Major Queen, you will retain the rank of Sergeant. You will complete the classroom portion of NCO Academy at your new duty station. The Sergeant Major determines you have completed the field portion of the process under warfighting conditions. As a former Master trainer, he had signed off on its completion.”

Coop looked up at Eve and smiled, but a small part of his brain bristled at getting busted down when he’d been the one to save her ass.

“You are also being put in for a medal for taking the fight to the enemy while virtually unarmored and unarmed. You nearly took out the HVT with your bare hands. That kind of initiative needs to be rewarded, and I’m sure some people will want to talk to you where you are going.” The ADM gave the two former SRRT members a long look before waving them off. “You’re dismissed.”

Eve’s heels clicked as she snapped to and turned Coop’s chair around.

<Well, that could have been worse,> he looked down at his missing leg as a ping announced the arrival of a new message.

It was his new orders. He instructed his IOR to open and display it across his vision. Eve must have received the same email because she stopped.

Coop nearly stopped breathing after reading the first line. He expected to be sent back to Thor and a new infantry unit, maybe even Mars to the HI school for more training. He did not expect what he was reading.

The email was ordering a permanent change of station from his old unit HQ on Thor to Fort Stewart-Benning on Earth. His medical recovery had a projected time table and using that they had assigned him to class 001-2434 of …

“Recruiting School! These fucktards want me to be a recruiter!” Coop closed the message and pinched his eyes shut. Hoping this was a bad dream.

“I’m assigned to Stewart-Benning too,” Eve replied. “Recruiter Class 001-2434 after my NCO Academy classroom completion.”

Coop’s outlook brightened a bit. He was used to the universe fucking him in the ass, but at least it looked like he’d be getting some ass for the foreseeable future.

<It’ll take it,> he grinned.

Not killing the baroness-queen-what’s her face might have been the best decision he’d ever made in the infantry.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 277

CMDR Derrick Berg

Location: CWS Borodino, Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

CMDR Berg sat enclosed in his holo-tank as tactical data flowed all around him. Borodino sailed at the head of the small formation he’d been given command of to check out the disturbance on the far side of Harper’s Junction.

“How many are Dutchman?” he asked, inquiring how many survivors the destroyer Embers of Tomorrow had floating out in space with nothing but their environmentally sealed CMUs.

“I’m getting twenty-seven distress beacons, and another dozen from escape pods,” The LT in charge of communications replied. “Prep for search and rescue?”

“Negative,” the CMDR shut that down. “We don’t know what killed her yet. Those uniforms are rated for a two hours of void exposure. We’ll send birds out to pick them up in an hour if we don’t find anything.”

“Aye aye, skipper,” the LT replied as he broadcasted a message to those spacers spinning alone in space.

<Where are you?> a holo representation of Harper’s junction turned slowly in the space in front of him. Soon they’d come around the dark side and get a better view of what occurred.

He had a small drone screen proceeding him so he didn’t bump right into anything, but his orders from the ADM were to find whatever the Windsor’s wanted hidden. He kept his eyes on the sensor scans as Borodino finally came into range of the hidden space…and found nothing.

“Anything?” he asked his EW expert who had her hands flying over her own immersed holo-tank.

“Just debris from the Ember. AI is running the numbers now.”

He watched as lines traced the path of the debris back to Embers known location at the point of contact. Then it analyzed where and how the ship was hit based on the optical data available from reconstructed views of the destroyer. Then it traced projected firing lines back to an empty section of space were there was a fat load of nothing. The AI was ninety-three percent certain of its findings, but at the same time telling him there was nothing there, or even remotely close to there.

<Machines,> he grunted as he looked harder at the projections. <Don’t send silicon to do a man’s job.> He knew it sounded wrong the second he thought it, but his point was valid.

“Gunnery,” he sent to the LT and CPO in charge of the battlecruiser’s eighteen energy cannons and eighty missile tubes, “Put a wide spread of low-powered shots in this section of space,” he circled the area the AI suggested the enemy should be. Have our forward facing railguns put some steel down range for variety’s sake.”

The Chief at the gunnery controls chucked. “Aye, sir,” it took a few seconds for the firing solutions to get locked in, and another short period for the cannons to power up, but not for the railguns to fire. Duro-steel shells spat from the front of Borodino and…two enemy cruisers appeared out of thin air right in front of them.

He didn’t have time to think about how they hell they’d done that. The enemy ships were in knife range at twenty-thousand kilometers. .

“Guns, correct…” Berg began, but the chief was all over it. New firing solutions were locked in just in time for Borodino to buck as its bow cannons opened up on the cruisers. Energy splashed across the enemies’ shields as they flashed under the pressure of the battlecruiser’s attack. The destroyers added their weight of fire to the fight, but they were busy maneuvering to get behind Borodino’s shield. At twenty-thousand kilometers they’d get cut in half by an enemy blast.

“Sir, we’ve got something coming up from the planet!” navigation informed as the cruisers finally returned fire. Borodino shuddered as the two dozen cannon blasts raked across its shields, but the larger ship held together. “Sir, one cruiser is breaking away while the other covers its retreat.”

<Fine by me. If they want to divide and die that’s up to them.>

“Focus everything on Bogey One,” he ordered as the helm swung around to bring a full broadside of energy, missile, and railguns to bear on the lone Windsor cruiser. “Fire!”

Forty missiles, twelve cannons, and dozens and dozens of railguns poured fire into the cruiser as it swung to put its more heavily defended flanks between it and its fleeing brother. At such a close distance, he could practically feel the heat as an assortment of missiles exploded across the cruiser’s shields.

Bomb-pumped lasers unleashed their antimatter infernos into the enemy as shotguns followed close behind. In several sections the shields failed. Energy and duro-steel pounded the enemy cruiser. It listed lazily to the side as something important broke, but it returned fire with its own assortment of weapons.

The integrated point defense of the three Commonwealth ships gave them a better shot even at such close range, but Borodino still took a hit. A section of shield buckled and energy poured through the gap for a half-second before it snapped back into place. It smashed into the hull ripping and melting metal plating, and opening two decks open to space. Damage alerts rolled across the CMDR’s screen, along with a dozen spacers whose medical status went from green to red. He quickly checked the two destroyers to ensure they hadn’t been hit.

“One more should do it.” Borodino spat out another broadside which cracked the Windsor cruiser into four misshapen pieces. Over the next few days it would fall into a decaying orbit and crash into Harper’s Junction if no one did anything.

“Status on the second cruiser,” he asked. It was hard to see the second ship behind the debris of the first. “Set a course around…” the bridge blinked red before and a siren blared a moment before Borodino jerked so violently it threw the bridge crew against their restraints, and more than one person was knocked unconscious by the blow.

“Damage report, what the hell was…” Berg began before everything went dark.

 

***

 

Queen Josephina I

Location: In orbit above Barrowsford, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

“Hold on, Your Majesty,” the pilot of the small, fast shuttle had a white knuckled grip on the controls as he flew around the edge of a widening debris field. The Collies’ ship looked poised to strike a death blow against her escape plan when light flashed up from the surface.

Several beams of scarlet energy smashed into the Collies’ battlecruiser. She counted seven in total, five of which wasted themselves on the shields. The last two broke through the rear quarter of the ship and wrecked the engines. Cascading explosions rocked the vessel, but much to her chagrin, it didn’t blow apart killing everyone inside. It was still dead in space, and one good hit from the land-based batteries would finish it off.

The two destroyers using the beleaguered battlecruiser as cover ignored the remaining Windsor cruiser and turned their guns toward the surface. She saw heat blooms against the atmosphere, but quickly turned her attention to the cruiser’s shuttle bay, which was approaching far too fast for comfort.

“Are you…?”

“Hold on!” the pilot cut the rear thrusters, flipped the shuttle around so it was pointing the opposite way, and tapped maneuvering thrusters, so the shuttle flew in the bay ass first.

Amber lights flashed around the bay telling her what she already knew: they were going to splatter across the far bulkhead like bugs on an air-car’s windshield. She closed her eyes and gripped her arms rests as the shuttle violently jerked. The pilot engaged the engines and a powerful burst slowed them down to an acceptable speed. Acceptable meaning they still hit the back bulkhead, but didn’t crumble the shuttle like a tin can.

She was still sitting in her seat and trying to catch her breath when a side door opened up and a pair of royal marines and a gaggle of deck crew gathered around the ship. “Are you ok, your Majesty?” they clamored.

“I’m quite alright,” she summoned all her regal dignity. “Please give me a hand.” One of the marines helped her down and she got to see the black blast mark that had scorched the deck all around the shuttle. “Take me to your captain,” she tried not to think how close she was to going splat.

She could feel the cruiser accelerating away from the enemy, away from her world, and away from the last vestiges of respect she would get from the other High Nobility. “On second thought, take me to my cabin. I need to rest.”

The marines didn’t argue as they took her to the captain’s personal quarters which had already been cleaned out in preparation for her arrival. She sat down on the bed and thought about crying, but crying was a waste of her time and energy. Revenge was a much more satisfactory course of action, and she knew just who she’d start with.

 

***

 

CPL Nickelbaucher

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

The charges finished eating through the duro-steel, and the HI trooper immediately lobbed grenades into the room beyond. They had no idea what was waiting for them, and just walking into an unknown enemy stronghold was a good way to get dead. Booms rattled the wall as they took cover.

“Move!” the HI trooper barged through the opening and peeled left. Mitch went right.

The smoke was still clearing as his HUD cycled through different views to give him the best tactical picture. What he saw was a massacre. Most of the people in the room were unarmed techs. A few armed soldiers were present, but the grenades had fucked them up good. He almost felt bad for them.

Movement caught his eye and he pivoted to bring his M3 to bear on a man. The man was bloodied and reaching for his desk. Right as he smacked the polyplast panel, Mitch pulled the trigger. The man’s chest exploded when the M3’s 1mm dart tore through him, and he fell to the ground dead, but not before the mountain shook.

<Shit.> Mitch could tell that hitting that button had fire the energy cannon again. He didn’t want to think about how many people were dead because he hadn’t pulled the trigger a heartbeat sooner. That was something he needed to deal with after, because he had more pressing issues.

The mountain was still shaking.

The HI trooper rushed to a circular station at the center of the destroyed workspace. The body of a torn up soldier, his helmet-less head oozing blood from deep lacerations, was lying over the screens. The trooper gave him a shove and the body flopped to the floor.

“Evac now!” The trooper didn’t look at it for more than a second. “Secondary explosions from the feedback loop are going to…” the whole room shuddered and a large chunk of mountain broke off the ceiling and smashed into a desk next to Mitch.

No one needed to tell him twice as he hauled ass for the exit. His injured team members were still outside the door, and looking around with fear in their eyes. Mitch checked everyone’s biometrics to see elevated heart races and adrenaline in their systems.

“We need to move!” He grabbed both under their armpits and pulled them to their feet. Although injured, they limped forward faster than he’d seen them move when assigned details in the past.

They only made it about ten meters before falling rock smashed into the PVT on Mitch’s left, and knocked everyone else to the ground. “A little help…” Mitch turned back to yell at the HI trooper, but was met with a rock pile that blocked the destroyed control room. “Fuck!” he bent to grab the down PVT and a chunk of mountain the size of his M3 smashed into his back.

He was knocked to his knees and struggled to get up as more rock rained down on him.

“I’m not going to be fucking buried alive,” he yelled just as a multi-ton boulder squashed his feet.

He barely had time to scream before the corridor filled with rubble and his fears were realized.

Somewhere in a warship above the planet his medical status went from green to red. It would take a few days for boots on the ground to confirm the status, but when it did a carefully crafted process would be put into action.

Through QE communications, or a ship traveling back to his unit’s HQ, the data would be transmitted and passed up the chain to the division level. Once there It would be screened and filter by an AI that would evaluate the manner of the soldier’s death and his last will and testament.

One of two things would happen. An analysis of the next of kin would be conducted. Citizenship was a key factor in the decision-making process, but wealth and influence was a close second. If the next of kin was a well-respected and influential citizen then the case would receive a casualty assistance officer to walk the family of the deceased through the process. That was the exception, not the rule.

Since Mitch Niceklbaucher came from an industrial Mid-World, and his next of kin hadn’t fulfilled the requirements for citizenship, a condolence letter, signed by the soldier’s first-line commander was generated, with detailed instructions, and sent to the identified individual in the soldier’s will. The instructions laid out how to collect the half-a-million dollars in servicememeber’s group life insurance, and any other benefits dependents might be entitled to. There was a read receipt to the message, and if nothing was done in six months a follow up call by an AI would remind the next of kin to take action. If no action was taken within one Earth-year of the soldier’s death then the payment was forfeited unless there were mitigating circumstances. After that, Corporal Mitch Nickelbaucher’s life story became just another string of ones and zeros in the massive depository of information kept by the Ministry of War along with tens of thousands of others that died for the Commonwealth during the Battle of Harper’s Junction.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 276

CPL Nickelbaucher

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

The mountain rumbled around them, and it had nothing to do with the firefight raging in the rock-lined corridors.

“Shit, the cannon just fired!” The HI trooper stuck his Buss around the corner and unloaded a long burst at the enemy position. A round pinged off the trooper’s armor as his scales rippled and sent it way too close to Mitch’s team for comfort.

Mitch leaned around the corner to add his own weight of fire. The corridor was about twenty-five meters long with a thick duro-steel door at the end. Between them and the door were a handful of enemy soldiers. Normally, the HI trooper would be able to plow right over them, but every round Mitch sent downrange smacked directly into a shield. On top of that, the few plasma-tipped rounds the HI got through the energy barrier were meant with purpose-designed defensive positions. Thick blocks of duro-steel protected the enemy defenders guarding the door to the cannon’s control room.

Mitch got one round off before return fire slammed into the wall right next to him. Chips of rock became shrapnel and pummeled his head. The cushion in his helmet stopped the worst of the whiplash, but it felt like someone had punched him in the throat, and some of his sensors went out.

“Shit, lost eyes,” he cursed and had to use the other sensors on his armor to make up for the difference. The battlefield snapped back to life on his HUD, but the definition wasn’t as good as it was. “Give me an ammo count,” the fire between both sides slacked as they took stock.

He dug around in the compartments of his armor and was surprised to find most of them empty. He had a hundred and eleven rounds left in the weapon and another three hundred after that. He’d gone through nearly his whole supply in the firefight. The rest of his team was similarly situated.

“We aren’t getting resupply down here anytime soon, and we need to stop them before they fire again.” Everyone knew every time the big gun fired hundreds of marines died.

“Can you use your arty?” one of the PVT’s asked. The suggestion was stupid enough that only a PVT would ask it.

“Negative,” was all the trooper said.

“If he uses that it’ll bring down the tunnel for sure. It might kill those assholes over there, but it won’t get us any closer to seizing control of this gun. We’ll have to dig our way through before cutting through the door. The battle might be over before we can do that.” Mitch filled in the rest.

“More grenades?” A PFC suggested.

They’d tried that earlier in the battle, and got one through that took out one of the enemy soldiers, but they’d wised up since then. Someone over there had their finger on the frequency adjuster and would dial it up to impenetrable whenever they saw a grenade inbound. However, that might work to their advantage.

“What if we use the grenades as cover to move forward? We put some frag downrange so they tighten up, followed by smoke and we move up. If they stay buttoned up then we could use the breech cord to eat away at their shields until they overload and we can get through. If they loosen up to return fire then we can charge in and take them,” Mitch suggested.

“That’s some violence of action right there,” the HI trooped paused. “I love it.” The trooper’s big Buss’ drums started to rotate. “We go on three. One…two…” he leaned around the corner and rapid fired three frag grenades. Followed by two smoke. The shield tightened up as expected and the frags detonated against it without any penetration. The smoke grenades bounced off it, and started spewing the thick, cloudy substance that would fool sensors and the Mark-One eyeball. “Three!”

They all rushed forward with the trooper in the lead. The enemy didn’t fire as they approached with their view blocked by the smoke. Mitch smacked his back into one of the duro-steel defensive positions that was half-uncovered by the shield. He reached up to test the energy barrier and his fingers met resistance.

“They’re still buttoned up, set up the breech kit.” A PVT and PFC got the same materials out that they were going to use on the door before, and started layering it across the shield. The sticky substance on its underside had no problem adhering to the energy.

“Move it,” the trooper urged. The team was mostly out in the open, and the Windsor’s could make up their mind at any time to shoot randomly into the smoke. If they did that, Mitch’s people would take casualties.

“Five seconds,” the PFC voice shook, and Mitch could practically imagine sweat pouring down his face. “Set.”

“Hit it!”

A hiss filled the air as superheated plasma designed to cut through ship’s armor and high-security doors ignited. The shield flared like it was the fourth of July.

<Shit…> Mitch didn’t have time to acknowledge the miscalculation before the Windsor’s opened up.

The PVT and PFC went down with a grunt. Thankfully, the Windsor’s were firing at the height an attacker would be, not at the ground, so they didn’t get hit anymore. All Mitch could do was watch their vitals spike and their armor’s limited medical options do what it could.

<Hang in there!>

More rounds pounded into the HI trooped, but he stood his ground, shrugging off the impacts. After what felt like the five longest seconds in the universe, the shield failed with a pop. Mitch didn’t wait, he vaulted over the duro-steel barrier…and collided with a Windsor soldier.

He was so surprised, that he instinctively pulled the trigger. Rounds stitched themselves across the wall before he could bring the weapon to bear on the target. He held down the trigger and ten to twenty rounds smashed into the Windsor’s chest. The soldier staggered back and finally fell as some got through. Mitch pivoted to find a new target and was tackled from the side.

Gunfire still raged around him, but he was forced to struggle with the enemy hand-to-hand when his weapon was kicked out if his grip. He lashed out with a gauntleted fist, and caught the Windsor on the side of the head. The blow rocked the enemy soldier, but he straightened up and came back swinging.

Mitch wasn’t a combative’s star, but he could hold his own. They traded blows and tried to get each other on the ground to rain down a killing stroke, but neither was giving ground until Mitch was able to slip in between the enemy’s arms and in close. He rammed a fist under the man’s armored chin, which might have hurt Mitch more than the Windsor, while his other hand went to his standard issue knife. While the Windsor was recovering from the uppercut and coming back for Mitch’s throat, Mitch took the knife and stabbed upward to a weak point in the enemy’s armor under the armpit. It met resistance as first, but he pivoted and put more power into the thrust until it finally punctured.

It was impossible to hear the enemy scream in the chaos of battle, but Mitch could feel him stiffen as the shock of the injury registered. Mitch took that opportunity to hook his leg around the Windsor and throw him over his hip. With the man now on the ground and stunned, Mitch jumped on him and drove his knife repeatedly into the enemy’s neck. After a few good stabs the Windsor wasn’t moving anymore.

“You good, corporal?” The HI trooper trotted over. He looked a little worse from wear, but the rest of the enemy soldiers were down.

“Yeah…Yes, Sergeant,” he shook off the adrenaline of the brawl to the death, and thought ahead to what they needed to do next.

“Get the breech kit and hope we have enough to cut through this door,” the trooper gave it an experimental tap.

The PVT and PFC were on their feet and moving, but they were combat ineffective. Mitch put in a call for a medic over TACCOM and a red cross appeared on their location in STRATNET, but he doubted anyone would find their way to them from the battle raging outside. A lot of people were dying and injured out there.

“Here,” the PFC knew why he was coming over and handed the last of the breech charges.

“We’ll pull through,” the PVT thought he was coming to check on them.

“Hold on,” was the only lame thing Mitch could think to say. “Cover our six.” He grabbed his wayward rifle and returned to the door to set the charges.

He ignited the charge and waited as the door started to smoke and burn.

 

***

 

Windsor Planetary Defensive Battery Seven

 

“They’re almost through.” It was the first time that Ned heard fear in the SGT’s voice, and it wasn’t helping anyone in the control room of the battery.

The remaining members of the security team were building hasty barricades around the room at the SGT’s direction, but they were flimsy. At best they were an overturned desk that Ned knew from experience were faux wood nearly a half-century old. They tended to wobble when you leaned on them too hard.

A pair of guards pushed one such desk past Ned’s station, tipped it up on it’s short end and rammed it against the door. He highly doubted the desk would do much to stop the multi-tin duro-steel door from turning it into splinters, but he understood people had to do something, anything to ward off the inevitable.

Ned’s grip on Martin’s hand was tight as he rubbed his thumb along his palm. He took deep breaths and tried not to think of all the things they would never have. Martin would never be able to take him to Windsor to meet his family. Ned’s family had disowned him after the occupation, so Martin was the only family he had, and they were both going to die in an underground control room while clearing an escape route for the queen herself.

<There are worse ways to die,> he took another deep breath as the edges fo the door started to glow as the demolition cord ate through the defenses.

“What’s the charge?” the SGT’s hands were flying across his controls.

“Eighty percent, sergeant.” Ned was surprised at how calm his voice sounded.

“The second that door comes down we open fire. Ned, I’m assigning secondary firing protocols to you if I can’t pull the trigger myself.”

Ned looked over his shoulder at the SGT in surprise. He was under the impression the Windsor NCO didn’t like him that much. It might be because he was the only person not currently freaking out of shaking at their impending doom, but nevertheless a surge of pride coursed through him.

“Yes, Sergeant.” He turned back to his monitor and saw the protocols downloading. He just wished they would go faster.

A loud hissing sounded coupled with bright sparks pulled his attention away from the status bar as the demolition cord finished burning through the door.

“Hold it!” the SGT ordered and the four nearest people rushed over to put their shoulder into it. The security personnel got behind their hasty barricades and trained their weapons on the still-smoking door.

For what felt like forever, nothing happened.

“Maybe…” Martin began as hope flashed in his eye before a loud crunch echoed through the space.

The door flew back like it had been hammered by a battering ram and collapsed on the four people trying to hold it back. All Ned heard was a sickening crunch before seeing blood seeping out beneath their final line of defense against the Collies. The security team opened fire, but was quickly met by several cylindrical objects being lobbed into the room.

“Grenades!” the SGT yelled as one seemed to twirl in the air and focus on him.

A security member ran forward to one that was falling just short of his barricade and reached out to grab it and throw it back. Ned didn’t see if he was successful as he ducked under his desk, and the whole world erupted and flashed.

Something sharp stabbed into his back and his body flared in pain as he went deaf. The pain lanced up toward his shoulders and down towards his feet and he toppled out from his hiding place. All he saw was fire and death as he flopped onto his side, tried to blink away the pain and the ringing in his ears. He looked to the side and saw Martin’s lifeless eyes staring back at him as a pool of blood steadily extended under his torso.

<Secondary protocols…secondary protocols…> his mind latched onto his training as he tore his eyes from his dead boyfriend. He had to climb up the side of his desk, ignore the stabbing pain in his hands, to reach his miraculously still-intact controls.

It was tough to see through the smoke, but it looked like the cannon was at its full charge. He reached for the controls to cut the charge from the cannon and isolate the power sources to prevent a feedback explosion when he heard a crunch behind him.

Everyone he knew was dead or dying, not up and walking around, so he lurched for the firing control.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 275

CPL Nickelbaucher

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Mitch struggled against gravity and the terrain as he worked his way up the slope. It was slow-going up the hillside opposite the HI firing position. The loose shale had caused him to slip multiple times, and ricocheted down onto his fire team following his lead. More than one person was grumbling over TACCOM, but he ignored them as he pushed forward.

<Screw this,> he thought after sliding down another few meters and almost knocking over the PFC behind him.

Mitch swung his rifle around his back and locked it into position. He bent down and started to use his hands and feet to crawl up the slope like a spider. It was much easier going, and the rest of his team followed his example.

He looked up and saw the HI trooper had already reached the ajar door. “Ok, here is the plan, everyone,” he relayed over TACCOM. “We’re going to get up this hill, stack beside the door, and do a textbook clearing of the inside space. Be prepared for anything. We don’t have any idea what the interior layout is like and I don’t want to…” he cut his mission prep short when the HI trooper slid inside the building.

“Or we’ll just follow him,” a PVT chuckled.

“Let’s move,” Mitch chomped down on the chatter and rushed forward. He didn’t slip again, but he waited for the rest of his team to reach the ledge before moving forward.

It was dark inside the cavern. The only light came from the open door, and his optics had trouble deciding whether to go to night vision or stay normal.

“It’s clear,” the HI trooper stated from the opposite side of the room. The big armored man was down on one knee and running his hand against the floor.

“What…oww!” One of the PVT’s exclaimed as he tripped and fell right on his face.

“Watch your footing,” Mitch chided as he followed the HI’s example.

The cavern was a big bunch of open nothing except for two tracks on the floor spaced a solid fifteen meters apart. “The energy cannon emerges from there,” the HI pointed over his shoulder at another well disguised door that looked like a rock face. “The outdoor opens, it fires, then moves back through the inner door to a lift that will shift its position.” The HI shifted his gaze along the wall. “There’s another door here we can take.”

“Breaching charges,” Mitch ordered, and a PVT ran up and pulled the device from his back. There was no panel to hack, so the electronic override bumper he was carrying was no good.

The PVT started to slap the cord onto the door. Once ignited, the cord would burn through the door and its’ hinges. It would then fall open on its own or they could kick it down.

“Stack up on the door,” Mitch reissued the order as the HI trooper stepped back. The door was too small for the LACS to get through without turning sideways and stooping, so the marines would go in first.

“Ready, Corporal,” the PVT informed as he stepped away from the door with a detonator in his hand.

“Engage tint,” everyone’s HUDs darkened to protect their eyes from the upcoming flash of light. “Blow it in three…two…”

The door opened and three men in smartcloth coveralls stopped dead in their tracks. The one on the right was the first to react. He dropped his bag of tools, turned to scream, and Mitch put a round in the side of his neck. The man died with a gurgle as one of the other men threw himself forward at Mitch, and the other turned to make a run for it.

Mitch pivoted away from the tackling man, throwing off the enemies’ attack. The man slipped around Mitch, fell to the floor, and Mitch put a pair of 1mm rounds in his chest. The man wasn’t wearing any armor, and blood splattered everywhere from the close range shots. Mitch turned to engage the third enemy, only to see the man’s body explode as one of the HI troopers 3mm plasma-tipped rounds impact him in the back. Gore splattered across the stairwell as the momentum carried what remained of the body forward and it fell down the stairs.

“We need to hurry,” the HI trooper ducked through the door and started down the stairs. His head brushed the ceiling as he took them half a flight at a time. “Someone had to have heard that.”

“Let’s move!” Mitch charged after the trooper and tried to shake from blood off the edge of his barrel.

 

***

 

Windsor Planetary Defensive Battery Seven

 

“Maintenance team, please give us a SITREP on the status of the door,” Ned asked for the fifth time. He got nothing but static. “There is a lot of energy discharge happening nearby. Maybe coms are being affected.” He guessed.

The SGT in charge of the battery pursed his lips and shook his head. “Corporal,” he turned to the second in command, “I want you to take half the security team and investigate. The other half of the team will get to their assigned defensive positions. We might have hostiles inbound.” His eyes scanned the control room and locked on several critical personnel, like Ned. “Whatever happens, we need to make this shot. I didn’t want to tell you the severity of the situation, but we’re providing cover fire for the Queen herself.”

People sat up straighter and chests puffed out a little farther at the news. They weren’t just shooting at the Commonwealth anymore. They were protecting their monarch. The news wasn’t as big a deal to Ned as the Windsor-born soldiers and civilians in the room, but he couldn’t help but feed off their energy.

“What’s our charge?” the SGT continued with operations as the CPL left with part of the security team.

“We’re nearing a fifty percent for our capacitors. Depending on how many shots we are going to get we can always overload them and achieve a more powerful shot,” Ned offered.

“Good thinking. We’ll keep that as a secondary option, but I plan to be able to put up more than a shot,” the SGT replied. “Cannon’s location?”

The giant cannon was still a little over two minutes from reaching its firing position. Diagnostics were run to ensure the inner and outer doors there were undamaged and would open and close. Those reports came back green. Now, all they had to do was wait for the charge to reach the desired level so it could threaten any ship that tried to endanger their Queen.

A working silence descended on the battery’s crew for a few minutes before a coms channel on the SGT’s station opened up.

“SERGEANT we’ve got…!” the transmission cut off, but the sound of weapon’s fire was unmistakable.

“Secure those doors!” The SGT yelled as the remainder of the security team slammed them closed and took up their fighting positions outside the command center. “Get ready to overload those capacitors,” he relayed to Ned.

Ned tried to ignore the fear in his gut, and a steadying hand from Martin helped. “Rerouting all power to cannon,” he acknowledged as the dial in front of him went from the green of one hundred percent into the red as numbers climbed higher.

<God save the Queen.> he thought as gunfire sounded just outside the armored door.

 

***

 

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

Ward stood in the main hanger bay and watched as columns of marines boarded Spyder Assault Shuttles bound for the surface of Harper’s Junction. The round-robin drop process had been going on for hours with little sign of letting up anytime soon.

“Sir,” a marine LT, acting as his liaison, handed him a PAD with the latest casualty figures.

A handful of Spyders and their marine compliments had been lost in the first wave of drops. As a total portion of the brigade on Aggie it was only seven percent of their force, but that seven percent was seven hundred soldiers and Spyder crews. Even that was a drop in the bucket to the thousands and thousands of spacers lost in the battles to get the troops to the planet, and all those dead weighed on him as their commander.

He rubbed his tired eyes with his free hand, and when he looked back the number of marine casualties had jumped another two hundred. “What the hell?”

The light-speed communication relays between the ground and fleet transmitted the STRATNET data instantaneously, so commanders had the most up-to-date information on their troops.

“The 942nd is in heavy contact advancing on the capitol, sir,” the LT relayed. “One of the enemy orbital defense batteries was able to get a shot off. Shields can’t do much against that type of firepower.”

“Shit,” Ward exhaled as the numbers updated again. There wasn’t a big jump this time, but the numbers were climbing. Thankfully, the breakdown listed more injured than dead.

“Sir,” the Aggie’s skipper came over TACCOM. “We’re getting some weird readings from our drone scouts.”

“On my way,” Ward left the ground pounders to do their thing so he could return to his.

The bridge wasn’t nearly as chaotic as it had been a few hours ago, but there was still plenty of activity as search and rescue operations, the marines’ landing, and the constant monitoring of the enemy fleet’s remnants still poking around. Ward bypassed his command chair and went straight to the CAG.

The Carrier Air Group Commander was a Captain, same as the ship’s commander, and he was in charge of the thousands of drones packed into the belly of Aggie and other assault carriers like her. It was the CAG’s operations that made the assault carrier class of warships different from battleships.

“Talk to me CAG,” Ward wasn’t the only one with the other CAPT. Aggie’s skipper was there was well.

“Pull up the data,” the CAG, a tall woman with long, dexterous fingers, pointed into the section’s holo-tank. “Here, we’re getting slight fluctuations, but nothing we’ve seen before.”

“Do we have eyes on?” Ward looked at the confusing jumble of data in the tank.

“Drone Delta-Five-Two and Delta-Five-Three will be coming around the curve of the planet in thirty-one seconds.” The CAG informed.

“Any ships nearby to get a closer look?” Ward asked, and the CAG rolled her eyes. It was a constant battle between drone commanders and ship commanders about what the appropriate use of resources were.

Drones were mobile reconnaissance and fighting platforms. Currently, they were still limited by light-speed communications, but that was going to change with new QE tech. The CAG thought her drones were the best tool to do this type of recon, but Ward also knew that warships had better sensor suites, and were much sturdier than the easily destroyed drones.  Something needed to be dealt with, the drones single missile launcher with five total missile compliment, and low-powered energy cannon wasn’t going to be able to put up much of a fight.

Thirty-one seconds passed and the two drones rounded the curvature of Harper’s Junction and saw nothing. The anomalous readings vanished from the scans and nothing could be seen in front of them.

“Hmmm,” the CAG leaned forward and looked into the tank like she was trying to discern its hidden secrets.

Embers of Tomorrow is in route. She’ll have eyes on in just under three minutes,” Aggie’s CAPT informed.

“Then we’ll wait,” Ward decided. “But let’s look at that data again.”

Three minutes later they were no closer to knowing what the hell had been happening. Their closest guess was a solar flare that had happened previously was messing with the drone’s instruments. The CAG disagreed, but she wasn’t offering a better argument.

Ember has eyes,” Ward barked at the bickering CAPTs as the destroyer came into range of the disturbances.

The more powerful sensor suite scanned the area where the anomalous reading originated and got…nothing.

“See,” the CAG’s face was full of confidence. “It was…”

A beam of energy ripped through the atmosphere and smashed into Embers of Tomorrow. The destroyer was an older model, unshielded, and the power from the energy cannon was outside the parameters of what the Commonwealth knew Harper’s Junction processed.

The force of the blast smashed Embers to the side as armor was ripped apart and flung into the void. Violent decompression ejected air, water, material, and crew from the tear in its side until the ship’s internal configuration shut off the compromised sections. Power flickered off as couplets from the main reactor melted and it went off line. Auxiliary power came on immediately, and saved the life of everyone on board, but the engines were out, and the rest of the crew was on a ticking clock to survive.

The bridge flew into a frenzy as the various sections handled the new casualty. Ward turned to the central holo-tank and saw a trio of cruisers dispatched from their makeshift anchorage to the damaged ship. The warship at the center was an upgraded battlecruiser, CWS Borodino. Ward scrolled through his PAD to find the CO’s information.

“Commander Berg,” he muttered to himself. He shot the CMDR with a familiar last name a TACCOM message containing the anomalous data and a warning to be careful. It looked like there was something there the Windsor’s on the surface didn’t want them to find in that seemingly-unimportant piece of space.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 274

Queen Josephina I

Location: 350 kilometers Southeast of Harper’s Center, Barrowsford, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

“That insolent bitch!” Josephina smashed her hand down against the real-glass table in the executive dining car of the maglev train spiriting her away from Harper’s Center at nearly seven hundred kilometers an hour.

The breakable material never stood a chance against her enhanced musculoskeletal structure, but that didn’t stop a flash of pain from traveling up to her elbow, or the small laceration along the meaty part of her palm.

“Your Majesty,” one of her personal armsmen tried to approach, but she shot him a glare that would put Medusa to shame.

She took a napkin and dabbed at the bit of blood that escaped before her ever-present medical nanites went to work on clotting and mending the cut. As she looked at the stained napkin in her hand, she wished the wound wouldn’t close so easy. Nothing in her life was going to be easy ever again.

She’d been a Queen, one of the three members of the new Royal class, one step below the Empress herself, and she’d managed to lose an entire planet in the span of a few days. It wouldn’t matter that the Collies brought a fleet that out massed hers five-to-one. It didn’t matter that some of those ships had the same advanced alien technology that allowed the Windsor fleets to smash to pieces the opposition in their bid to drive the Commonwealth back from Imperial space. It didn’t matter that the royal and imperial troops on the ground were already facing at least an enemy brigade, with another one surely landing as more of the Collies’ ships settled into a parking orbit around Harper’s Junction and her moon. It didn’t matter that she’d bloodied their nose well and good in the process. At this moment, her ships were still dogging half of the Collies’ naval forces as they limped toward the planet. The damage being inflicted was superficial, but it showed her people weren’t giving up.

<That is how I will be remembered,> she squeezed her fist tight, trying to draw more blood from her wound, but it was already clotted, and a thin, protective layer of fresh skin was being spun by the microscopic robots across the gash. <And all because of that insolent bitch!>

She was rational enough to know that everything that troubled her wasn’t due to the large woman who came barreling through her forcefield and dispatched most of her guard detail, including the good Colonel, with her bare hands and a blade. The woman hadn’t laid a finger on Josephina, and the Queen had taken her arm for her impudence, but that didn’t stop her metal-headed rescuer from threatening to blow up the entire city. The colour sergeant that had saved her had made the right choice in letting them go to save her. As a reward, his mech was folded up in its travel arrangement in the cargo hold of the train, and he would be her personal escort off the planet. However, part of her wished she’d called the enemy’s bluff.

She was sure it was a bluff. She couldn’t see the man’s face, but she’d seen his armor, and the Commonwealth gunnery sergeant stripes on it. From her interrogations and trickery, she’d surmised the team sent by the Collies to infiltrate her planet was no more than a dozen soldiers. She’d captured an officer, senior enlisted, and two lower enlisted. While it was possible they had more than one gunnery sergeant in the team, she doubted it, which meant the man inside the armor wasn’t that high ranking. If one thing was true of all the militaries of humanity, it was that they didn’t give enlisted personnel activation code for anti-matter weapons. That was a chance the colour sergeant couldn’t take, so she bargained their way out, and hoped the troops they’d alerted to the enemy presence could finish the job. They had two of the new anti-armor grenades their alien suppliers had sold them, so at least a couple of the soldiers who’d threatened her life were hopefully lying dead in a ditch somewhere. She’d just have to live with that imagery.

“Coming up on our destination, Your Majesty,” Theodore entered the car as a slight shift in the train’s acceleration announced their impending arrival.

Their destination was Marytown, a medium-sized city about five hundred kilometers from the capitol. It was located at the edge of a large bay, which gave it scenic views, a solid fishery business, and a readily available spaceport to get the goods quickly to market. It was one of the former planet’s masters’ favorite vacation destinations. Many of the wealthy business and political elite owned real estate among the staunchly loyal population, so it was a no brainer to have their private, secret escape train from the seat of governmental and corporate power flee to this safe haven.

The maglev tracks popped onto the surface about thirty kilometers north of the town. Unlike the capitol city, Marytown was not under siege. Its importance made sure it had a shield generator and a PDC, occupied by a royal garrison, but the Collies didn’t get that memo. Railgun rounds and energy blasts from orbit weren’t pounding the shield, and ground troops weren’t pressing toward it from the mountains to west. It was eerily peaceful.

Her train pulled directly into the space port where a defensive perimeter was manned and ready by the company of royal marines. They bowed as she exited, and the captain in charge of the formation led her to her waiting shuttle. It was a luxury craft seized from the former governor and upgraded over the last month with the Windsor’s more modern technology. It looked unarmed, but in fact boasted a powerful bow cannon. However, that was all it boasted, so it wouldn’t win in a stand-up fight against any military vessel. Its advantages were with its shield and speed. That was what was going to get her to safety.

She barely listened to the captain as she sat on a richly-upholstered seat that luxuriously altered itself to perfectly take the pressures of the day off her shoulders and lower back. She poured herself a drink from the full bar and waved the man away. She might not have been paying attention, but she knew the situation. There were two ships waiting to get her back to Windsor. They were running on silent, and trying to be a hole in space as the Collies scoured the areas with sensors and patrols. They’d stayed hidden so far, but it wasn’t going to last much longer. For her to get from the ground to the ships, she needed help.

 

***
Windsor Planetary Defensive Battery Seven

 

“Change of mission, “the SGT in control of the battery yelled. “Cannon to position twelve. Fire mission in fifteen minutes, and take every second of that to build our charge. We need more oomph behind this shot.”

Position twelve was the southern-most firing point, which if Ned remembered his training correctly, wouldn’t even give them a line of sight on the advancing Commonwealth forces. He spent a second wondering why they were abandoning a prime shot right into the heart of the Collies infantry for something else, but he quickly pushed that aside. It wasn’t his job to find the targets, it was to shoot the gun.

“Yes, Sergeant, position twelve.” He entered the information into his screens and the cannon moving through the mountain shuddered to the stop and reversed direction.

“And will someone get me that repair team’s status with the door,” the SGT yelled as an afterthought as the power levels on Ned’s gauge slowly began to climb.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

“There we go,” Mike groaned as he and SSG Hightower slowly lowered Coop’s armored mass to the ground.

“I’m good,” Coop feebly protested, but the pain in his leg was intensifying. His armor was reaching that point where it wouldn’t give him anymore drugs to combat the pain without an override. He could ask the GYSGT, SGM, or LT for authorization, but he doubted they’d give it to him. They’d already lost too many people today.

The SGM came up behind them with Sullivan’s limp body in a fireman’s carry and carefully lowered him to the ground. The rest of the team pulled security as they assessed the situation. Instead of looking around, Coop’s eyes went to Eve.

She was pale, but she’d always been pale. It was the pallor of her skin that really worried him. There was a slow drip of blood from the stump of her arm, despite the first aid he’d given her, and she kept passing her hand over where her other hand should be. She gave a start of surprise every time her hand missed her now-missing arm.

“Hey, talk to me,” Coop knew the symptoms of shock, and he might be on his way there very soon.

She gave a bitter laugh and gestured around her. “We kind of fucked this up,” she didn’t’ sugarcoat the situation.

They were in a collection of buildings near the outskirts of the city. The local police hadn’t tried to stop them because they’d taken shelter just like everyone else. When the smoke cleared and a victor emerged, they wanted to be on their new boss’ good side. The Windsor road blocks were few and far between as more troops got pulled to the front.

Through a crack in the windows Coop could see the battle raging in the distance. The sparking of shields, muted artillery fire, and much louder incoming ordinance from space breaking through the atmosphere was all that could be heard as the city ground to halt and took cover.

“I don’t know,” Coop shrugged. “We cleared the way for the cavalry, and we got out in one piece,” he winced at his choice of phrase, “more or less,” he gestured as the lance of duro-steel that had destroyed his leg and imbedded in his armor.

Instead of being pissed, Eve laughed, which was how he knew shock was starting to set in. She waved what was left of her arm and gave his LACS a small tap like they were toasting something with expensive champagne instead of missing body parts.

“This is the infantry,” she stated. “This was always a hazard of the job.”

“Yeah, but they’ll grow you a nice new arm when we get home, and they’ll patch up my leg good as new. Soon we’ll be out dancing and back in the sack like nothing ever happened.”

“Do you ever stop thinking about sex?” She laughed again.

“Nope,” he replied without hesitation. “Especially when it is with you.”

“I don’t know whether to be flattered or offended,” she shot back, but the smile pulling at her lips told Coop is was the former.

It might be the blood loss talking, but Coop was sure he had a very good chance of getting laid pretty soon. <I’ve never done it with a one-armed woman. The new positions…>

“Lock it up and listen up,” the SGM came over. “We’ve got a medivac on the way, but they’ll have trouble getting close. We need to hump it five klicks out and rendezvous with a RECON team that is providing target data from the fleet on the city’s defenses. They’ll get up back to a Spyder and out of here.”

“Great. Just what a guy with a bum leg wants…more walking,” Coop muttered under his breath.

“You’d rather sit here and wait for the enemy, Sergeant?” the SGM’s eyes bore into Coop from behind his armored helm.

“No, Sergeant Major. I’m up for another stroll,” Coop made sure to keep the string of four-letter words he wanted to say to himself.

“Ok, big guy, let’s go,” Eve didn’t help Coop to his feet, but she was there to motivate him.

They might both be gimps for the near future, but they were gimps together, and he was fine with that.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 273

CPL Nickelbaucher

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

<You’d think we’d fought enough for one day,> CPL Mitch Nickelbaucher kept his thoughts to himself as he reached out to steady himself on the rock face. Most of the 942nd, including his battalion the 9422nd, was marching toward the capitol city to take it back from the Windsor’s. He’d been part of that march as they went up the mountains and back down the other side, but once they reached the bottom they got a FRAGO from the Battalion Commander.

The LCDR knew Mitch’s team, and a few others, had taken it on the nose in securing the valley town, so he had an alternative mission for them. Being taken out of the fight was something an infantryman never wanted to hear, but after getting charged by a Windsor mech, he was a little more amiable to the situation change.

What he was not cool with was having the hump it back up the mountain for the new assignment.

<They couldn’t have given us this FRAGO when we were up here the first time,> he mentally bitched where no one could hear him. As a CPL and team leader, it was his job to back the SGT, who was backing the LT, who was backing the Commander. No one else was bitching. Bitching was for PVTs and PFCs, although he was pretty sure the fixed look of irritation on the SGT’s face had a little to do with their new mission.

The mission of the detachment of Alpha Company 9422nd Infantry Battalion was providing close security for a pair of recon sniper teams and an unknown number of HI troopers that were going to provide indirect fire missions for the BDE as it marched across the farmland between the mountains and the city.

With the loyalists and Windsor’s already cleared out of the valley, and the only other hostile forces digging in around the capitol, sitting behind cammo-netting on a mountainside while the sniper’s sought out enemy leaders wasn’t a half bad gig. The problem was getting up to their position.

Snipers didn’t like to be where the enemy could easily find them, so they weren’t anywhere near the paths carved through the mountainside by centuries of travelers. That meant their squad had to scramble up the rock face relaying only on their strength and sense of direction. The loose shale had already rolled one ankle among the PVTs, and the PFC carrying the area forcefield had nearly fallen on his ass and slid back down the mountain.

“We close, Sergeant?” he sent over TACCOM. He couldn’t keep the exhaustion out of his voice.

“The beacon is close, Corporal. Just a bit farther.” Even the fit NCO sounded out of breath.

Mitch did his duty and motivated his soldiers forward, only for a chunk of mountainside the give way under him as he tried to crawl up it. He flailed helplessly in the air, wondering which of his soldiers he was going to land on top of, when a giant metal hand shot out of thin air and grabbed him.

“Easy there,” a suit-to-suit connection opened up. “I got you.” The metal hand, which was attached to a suit of V3 LACS armor effortlessly yanked him up and under the cammo-netting protecting their position.

The position was a shelf on the side of the mountain about twenty-five meters deep and nearly a hundred wide. Three other HI troopers were staggered across the shelf, along with area shield generators. It took a minute for him to spot the two sniper teams, even though one was less then five meters in front of him. Their polymorphic camouflage was engaged and they melded into the rock. An IR outline on his HUD popped up over their position so he didn’t step on them in the future.

“You’re our new security?” an LT appeared from behind a second cammo-net further back from the ledge.

“Yes, Sir,” the SGT let his neck gator slither down and removed his helmet.

“We’re on fifty percent security right now. Have your guys eat, shit, and sleep if they can. The fireworks aren’t set to kick off for at least another hour.” The LT left the SGT to do the NCO work and returned to his tent.

“Nickelbaucher, your team has thirty minutes to grab some chow and catch a few Z’s. Then be ready.”

Mitch and the rest of his guys were more than happy to take their helmets off, plop on their asses, and dig through their packs to grab the MRE’s that the quartermaster had randomly selected for them. As Mitch chomped on his chicken with noodles, which was nothing more than a mass of soy flavored to taste like those foods, he watched the battlefield before them. It was a trek all the way to the city, but the Windsor’s weren’t going to let them stroll right up to the gates without a fight. The leading elements of the Commonwealth force were about fifteen kilometers away, and slowly moving forward under the cover of area force fields. They were on foot and searching for anything that the enemy might have placed in their path. He’d heard whispers about mines, but couldn’t be sure about it.

The Commonwealth force were in unit-sized wedges over several kilometers. They weren’t going to bunch up and endure mass casualties if enemy artillery got through. Mitch popped his helmet back on and dialed his visuals into the shields. What popped up was a hodge-podge of overlapping energy. Each squad seemed to have a shield generator on the back of someone in the middle of their formation. The company then had a larger shield in a vehicle with the command team. The battalion had an even bigger shield that covered their command team and more important assets, and the CMDR with the brigade command team had their own powerful shield that covered a large swath of space. Any indirect fire from the enemy on the main body of the assaulting Commonwealth force would have to get through a lot of energy to hurt the soldiers on the ground.

<Looks like those aliens really knew what they were talking about.> He’d heard about the new defensive tech, and experienced it with the tank and their own area shield, but this was something else entirely.

He was still watching when flares of energy erupted from a kilometer in front of the vanguard elements. Voices started to boom over TACCOM in the LT’s tent behind them.

“Here we go it’s time to earn our paychecks,” the LT yelled.

With a force this big moving on a target the brigade commander must have wanted a centralized artillery element. The HI troopers were good when looking after their own units, but trying to coordinate that fire over ten battalions and a hundred different companies was a headache just waiting to happen. Instead, the CMDR took a chunk of the HI, stuck them on the mountain behind shields and cammo-netting, and gave an officer the job of fire direction officer to address the fire missions and deploy their resources appropriately.

“And it’s our job the guide them,” Mitch sealed up his helmet just before panels in the cammo netting parted and half of the HI on the ledge fired. The boom stirred up dust and automatically activated his audio dampeners.

“Nickelbaucher, deploy your team,” the SGT sent a waypoint over his HUD.

The security elements were deploying to the ledge’s avenues of approach. Mitch’s team was guarding the way they’d come up, which was nothing but a field of shale for a hundred meters before hitting a walking path that snaked down to the main road in another two-hundred and fifty meters. They had clear fields of fire on anyone that was trying to sneak up on them, and protection from an area shield placed just fwith them in mind.

He was feeling the most protected since first setting foot on Harper’s Junction, which was what made his stomach drop when he saw the mountainside start to shift three hundred meters away.

“Sergeant!” he yelled as dirt and shale shifted and fell as something slid back to reveal a hole in the mountainside.

“Shit… open fire,” the SGT looked just as confused, so he went to the infantry default response.

Mitch put his sight on the opening and pulled the trigger. Rounds spit toward the chunk of missing mountain, but he had no idea if they were effective of not.

“Are we doing anything, Corporal?” a PVT asked as he dropped a spent magazine and loaded a new one.

Mitch switched the thermal vision and saw something hot inside. “We might have hit some…” his statement was cut off by the roar of sound and energy that sprang out of the opening. His HUD automatically shut down to protect his eyes, so he didn’t see the beam designed to engage warships in orbit punch right through a battalion, company, and squad shield on the Commonwealth formation’s right flank.

One second two hundred fighting men and women were marching, and the next they were vaporized by the energy emplacement.

TACCOM must have been going crazy, but as a lowly CPL, he didn’t have access to that chatter. His mission was the door to the energy cannon, which was already sliding closed.

“Put a grenade in that thing now,” he held down the trigger and sprayed rounds not into the opening but into the door itself.

A PFC with the fire team, the team’s only grenadier, slid an HE 40mm grenade from his armored compartment, stuck it in the oblong barrel attached to the bottom of his M3, sighted, and fired. The round arched through the air as the mini-silicon brain in the munition looked for any weak points. As it turned out, there was a small one. This firing point had been taken under fire by the Windsor’s during their invasion of Harper’s Junction. Their energy weapons had greatly weakened a section of the duro-steel door next to the opening/closing mechanisms. The grenade’s tiny brain noted the weakened density if the area and lined up its explosive charge to elicit maximum damage.

In the grand order of things in the battle for Harper’s Junction, a 40mm grenade fired from an infantry PFC’s M3 was nothing, but in this instance it got the job done. The grenade exploded, which sounded like a lady-like fart compared to the roar of the energy cannon, and the door’s closing ground to a halt.

“Nice shooting!” Mitch gave the PFC a mental high-five. “Sergeant, we busted the door. Permission to go in there and kick some ass.”

There was a pause before the reply. “Granted, and you’re taking backup. We can’t have that energy weapon blowing holes in the brigade again.”

Mitch’s team got up from their prone firing position and was joined by one of the HI troopers.

“Follow me,” the trooper announced as he hopped up and slide down the side of the mountain toward the winding foot-trail that would lead them to another forty-five degree climb up to the busted door.

“Lead the way!” Mitch wasn’t dumb enough to slide down the mountain without the added protection of a LACS, but he followed as fast as he could. Any thought of a leisurely mission was gone after seeing hundreds of his fellow soldiers incinerated.

 

Windsor Planetary Defensive Battery Seven

 

“Fire mission complete.” Ned informed as the batteries started to recycle and recharge. “Closing door now.” He hit a sequence of buttons and the cannon dropped down on the elevator to a separate firing position while the door closed up behind it. Hopefully, when the Collies figured out what happened there would be nothing but empty mountainside for them to find.

“Cannon to Position Three. That’ll give us the best angle on the left flank,” the SGT in charge of the battery ordered.

Planetary Defensive Battery Seven had a rough go of it so far. They’d had their power lines cut by sabotage at the source in the city, so they didn’t have enough power to damage the warships in orbit. Command had come down and told them to button up and wait it out for further orders. Then word came of the Collie landing force that took control of the valley to their south. The mountains were the only thing standing between the Collies and the capitol, but command still refused for them to conduct fire missions. Now Ned knew why.

The Imperial marines had several fixed fighting positions already in place between the mountains and the city. They wanted to trap the imperialist Collies between those lines and Battery Seven’s guns in the mountain. It didn’t matter if the enemy force was a thousand or a hundred thousand, their energy cannon, even with the planet’s atmosphere degrading their already-weakened effectiveness, was still more than enough to cut through most mobile infantry shields.

Ned grinned at the blow they would strike against the Empire’s enemies when an error icon flashed on his screen. “Sergeant, Position Eight’s door failed to close,” he relayed.

“Shit,” the SGT cursed. “Get a repair team up their now. ETA on the cannon getting to Position Three?”

“Four minutes and six seconds until cannon is locked in Position Three,” another member of the gunnery crew informed.

“Another two minutes and thirteen seconds for a full charge,” Ned added.

They had six minutes and nineteen seconds until they could deal another blow to the enemy. Ned looked over at Martin and smiled.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 272

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

CWS Agincourt slid into position with puffs from her positioning thrusters. The hull of the task force flag ship had stopped leaking atmosphere, and repair crews could be seen scurrying around the hull.

Admiral Ward made sure the George Bush stood between his ship and any planetary energy weapons that wanted to take a shot at him. Carrier Group Alpha spread out around Carrier Group Charlie to cover their rear and flanks. Now, the Bush’s ships to concentrate on bombarding the planet and not worry about someone sneaking up on him.

Ward wiped some sweat from his brow as he stowed his helmet on the headrest of his command chair. The holo-tank was still scrolling with damage reports, but everything was being handled by the ship’s captain. The greater strategic picture was out of his hands for the moment.

“Commander,” he opened a shipboard TACCOM channel to the marine leader. The woman’s tired face, with a bit of dried blood on her close-cropped bangs, stared back at him.

“I’ve got the first companies ready to disembark now, sir,” she replied. “Due to casualties, and the general mess the Windsor’s made onboard, our deployment plan is totally fucked.” She didn’t look at all worried about using coarse language around the ADM.

“Understood, Commander,” he gave the woman a sympathetic look. “The 942nd looks like it’s got things handled for the moment. Land your troops with all due speed, but make sure they’re ready to fight.”

“Aye aye, sir,” she cut the line.

Ward pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to summon up a little energy. The adrenaline rush of battle was wearing off, a crash was coming, but he didn’t have time for that. This was only step one of the game plan. He pulled up the latest data on Bravo and Delta groups. Delta had been savaged by the Windsor’s. The assault carrier at the center of the formation was still making its way slowly toward Harper’s Junction, but just about all of its escort ships were limping behind it. The Windsor’s had broken off contact when Bravo came into range, and their retreat cost them some ships, but in the tally of lives and ships, the enemy came out ahead in that engagement. In the tally of the meeting the mission objectives, the Commonwealth was victorious. They just paid a big price.

Aggie’s AIs had calculated Delta, with Bravo providing cover, was nineteen hours from dropping anchor around Harper’s Junction. That meant the 942nd was going to be handling the brunt of ground combat while Aggie’s marines got their act together and got in the fight.

<Then there is still the remaining ships to worry about,> he sighed as he got up off his chair and stretched with an audible crack of the spine.

The Windsor fleet wasn’t gone. It was regrouping in orbit around one of the nearby planets. He had a drone screen between them so they couldn’t sneak up on his forces, but he still didn’t know what they had planned. He also didn’t like the firepower they still had at their disposal.

He stepped out of his armored flag bridge and nearly slipped on a pool of blood.

“Take it easy, sir,” a marine CPL advised as he picked up a body in dragonscale armor. The marine with him picked up another body with Windsor armor. Both of the dead soldiers’ blood was intermingled at the hatch to the bridge.

Ward wasn’t one to spook easily, but he gulped involuntarily. He’d never known how close he was to the enemy boarders. He’d focused on his job, coordinating the battle, and that tunnel vision was readily apparent now.

“Good work,” he gave the CPL a pat on the shoulder and headed for his ready room. The room was pockmarked with bullet holes and more than one scorch from a plasma explosion.

<This gives me a whole new appreciation for recovery operations,> he bent over and started to sort through the stuff he could save and the stuff he’d have to trash.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

<All those VR games and holo-movies are complete horseshit!> Coop cursed as rounds slammed into his shield for the last few meters before he put a wall between him and his enemy. The SGM was right behind him returning fire, while both used their bulk to provide cover for the unarmored Eve.

In all those movies and games, after you faced off with the big, bad boss man you would emerge to your allies already victorious over the evil bad guy’s subordinates. In reality, that was a bullshit. Coop had faced off against the Windsor mech, and come away without a scratch, but now he had to fend off the rest of the palace’s security forces with only the half-strength SRRT team as back up.

“Last mag,” the GYSGT informed as she swapped out her M3’s empty 1mm drum for a fresh one.

Coop quickly checked his own ammo gauge before checking on Eve. She’d been patched up by the GYSGT while the SGM figured out how the hell they’d get out of this hornet’s nest, but it wasn’t meant to hold. They’d controlled the bleeding and sedated her enough so the pain wasn’t too bad, but she was still ambulatory. SSG Hightower was assigned to guard her, which Coop thought was redundant since he wasn’t leaving her side.

The GYSGT slapped the magazine into her M3, popped up, and fired a burst downrange. A couple of Windsor soldiers, who’d taken the lack of fire as an opportunity, caught the brunt of the blast as they tried to creep up on the team’s position. One went down from what had to be a lucky hit, while the rest scampered for cover.

“Where we going, Sergeant Major,” Coop asked over TACCOM. He had an uncomfortable feeling like a noose was tightening around his neck. The enemy was going to pin them down and wear them down if they didn’t move.

“Our exit is a hundred and fifty meters in front of us,” the SGM announced.

Coop popped up to take a look, and only saw the palace’s exterior wall. Between them and that wall were a number of enemy troops behind cover and concealment, and they opened fire on Coop once they saw his head pop up.

“No way in hell we’re going to…” Coop began, but the SGM cut him off.

“Wait for it,” the SGM had to be looking at something on his HUD because no one else knew a thing. “Wait for it,” he repeated.

A flash of light emitted from above as railgun rounds tore through the atmosphere on a direct course for the city. Coop instinctually ducked, like any survival-oriented human would, when those duro-steel rounds smashed into the city’s shield like the hand of god. The shield flashed with energy as it absorbed and deflected the rounds from the ships in orbit, but it did succeed in providing a significant distraction, which was only compounded when the palace wall directly ahead of the team exploded.

“Sergeant Major took down the wall’s generator while inside the palace,” Sullivan informed as he jumped up with the rest of the team.

“Why didn’t he tell us?” Coop followed suit and vaulted the wall to provide covering fire so the unarmored members of their team could advance.

“He did,” Sullivan’s Buss boomed next to Coop’s as they established a firing line and started to eat away at the enemy’s positions. “You were too busy making lovey-dovey eyes at Berg to notice.”

“Well…whatever,” Coop didn’t have a comeback, and some the Windsor’s were trying to move around to flank them.

He drove them back into position with withering fire that killed at least two members of that assault element. More gunfire erupted behind the Windsor’s as resistance fighters started to pour through the breech in the walls.

<Those magnificent bastards!> Coop grinning like a kid in a candy store as the rebels fanned out to envelop the Windsor’s.

The enemy’s fire discipline started to crack as they realized they were being hit from all sides, and that was Coop’s cue to move. He half-trotted next to, half-carried Eve forward as he sprayed enemy position with his plasma-tipped rounds.

“Move right!” the SGM yelled when they were about halfway to the exit.

Coop pivoted to put his body between the enemy and Eve. They were out in the open and moving, so he was the cover. He fired where his AI told him the enemy was, and his rounds smacked into a blue barrier.

“Fuckers have an area shield!” he relayed, as he switched to his regular rounds and poured fire on the shield on full auto. The constant disruption would keep the enemy from effectively targeting the team.

“I’m set, move, Cooper!” Sullivan sent when he was ready to provide cover fire.

Coop disengaged and sprinted back toward a chunk of wall that Sullivan was using to rest his Buss on. Coop slid in next to him, but the cover wasn’t big enough for the both of them.

“Grenades and we make a break for it!” the SGM ordered. The team was only fifty meters from the exit. Bodies littered the open space, with many more belonging to the rebels than Windsor’s.  They were brave but outmatched by the enemy.

Coop cycled his barrel until the grenade chamber popped into place. He made sure a frag round was in the chamber followed by smoke.

“Fire!” the SGM was moving before he finished.

The grenades were set to a lower velocity so they would penetrate the shield. The frag grenades lobbed out of the Busses and through the energy barrier followed by the smoke. There were muffled screams as the frags detonated, and then the smoke obscured everything.

“Move!” Coop yelled as he pushed SSG Hightower forward.

The two unarmored NCOs grabbed Eve between them and ran for the exit. The LT was in the lead with the SGM covering her, Mike right on their asses, while Sullivan took up flank security, and Coop rear security. He was the last to leave the position, and the first to see the return volley. The problem was they didn’t look like any grenades he’d ever seen before.

“What the hell?” he watched as the oblong-shape arched toward their old position. Since he was nearly fifteen meters away, with a shield and armor between him and the incoming blast, he wasn’t worried, and he was even less worried about the rest of the team.

The enemy had blown their load on an old position. Coop grinned at the oversight until a red warning siren sounded in his armor. Text came up on his HUD to warn him of whatever problem his AI had detected.

<What the hell?> The text on his screen looked like a feral cat had been given LSD, starved for a week, and then allowed to send a message on a scratch post. Coop stared at it in complete confusion was a half-second.

“What is…?” Sullivan seemed to be getting the same message.

{Translate?} Coop thought through his IOR and the alien thing in his brain went to work.

If Coop would have known this would be an issue, he would have put alien default translation protocols at the top of his check list when he reformatted the GYSGT’s armor.

The deranged-cat scribbles reordered themselves into English, and Coop’s blood ran cold.

Alert: Shield Frequency Deciphered. Recommend fresh scramble.

“Do you know how to…?” Sullivan and Coop were obviously on the same wavelength, but those seconds were critical and it was already too late.

The oblong grenades that had been tossed out of the enemy’s shield, at the SRRT team’s old position, ended up being anything but harmless. The Commonwealth had nothing like them in their inventory, and only a handful of the grenades were even on Harper’s Junction. The team didn’t know this, but the grenades were only given to the Queen’s personal bodyguards, and they had a single purpose…to kill armored enemies.

Sensors in the grenade used magnetics and energy sensors to hone in on their target, so despite being thrown over a dozen meters off course, they had no problem finding their targets. Once the grenade’s AIs identified their victims, they initiated the first of their three stages. Stage one was designed to identify and defeat an enemy’s shield. The grenades had to be in the vicinity and measuring the enemy’s shield for long enough to crack the frequency before being used. So, despite being in the courtyard the entire battle since the SRRT team emerged from the palace, they were only being used now.

With the frequencies deciphered, the grenade’s computer initiated stage two. Stage two was an energy blast that was meant to break down a shield’s integrity. Traveling at the speed of light, the blasts of energy hit Coop and Sullivan before they knew what was happening. Before they could shout in surprise that their shields were down, the grenades engaged the third and final stage. A powerful graviton blast turned a hunk of duro-steel in the center of the grenade’s housing into a lance of death. The lance was launched from the grenade, on target for the two LACS, on speeds that had never before been achieved by electro-magnetic projectiles. It ignited the atmosphere as it passed through the space between the grenade’s housing and the two armored soldiers.

With their shields down, all Coop and Sullivan had was their 6cm armor between them and these armor-killing spikes.

All this happened so fast that Coop wasn’t able to follow it. However, the silicon brains of his LACS were, which was what saved his life. Like some HI, he had presets and favorites programmed into his armor. The language default wasn’t one of them, but his grav-boots engaging when in the presence of a sudden gravitational change was. He had losing a leg to a pirate’s grenade on that stupid mining facility, while saving LCDR Gold’s ass to thank for that.

So, when the graviton burst fired the armor-piercing lance at him, Coop’s presets identified the explosion and pulsed his grav-boots.

{Armor Breech!} his IOR blared inside his brain a second before overwhelming pain washed over him.

Coop screamed and didn’t even feel himself falling to the ground as his LACS dumped drugs into his system. The pain subsided to a dull throb about the time he realized he was on his back, and in the open about fifteen meters from the exit.

Sullivan was almost at the exit and he was down too.

<What the hell?> his groggy mind tried to fight through the haze of the drugs.

His training took over and he ran a suit diagnostic. His left thigh was a mess of red icons on the results. The armor had been breached, there was internal injury, and it didn’t look like he was getting up on his own anytime soon.

“Sergeant Major, I’m hit,” his voice sounded emotionless over TACCOM.

“Stay put, Sergeant, I’ll be there in one.” The SGM replied.

Coop saw the NCOIC dragged Sullivan’s LACS the last few meters to the exit while firing his Buss one handed. Plasma rounds impacted the area shield, which was still obscured with smoke. The GYSGT, Mike, and SSG Hightower were leaning into the wall’s opening and taking shots with their weapons to keep the Windsor’s head down.

The SGM got Sullivan’s LACS on the opposite side of the wall and ran to Coop. Grenades thumped out of his Buss and splattered against the shield. The enemy had tightened things up, but in doing so had obscured their own view of the battlefield. No one could see shit through that smoke. Not that Coop cared. He was looking down at his thigh and marveling at the meter-long, duro-steel spike that had impaled his leg and was sticking out the other side.

<It’s not every day you see that,> his drug-addled brain thought as the SGM grabbed him by a carrier handle at the back of his armor and started pulling him toward the exit.

The enemy was hunkered down to ride out the rest of the fight, so they didn’t take any fire as they got out of the palace. Hightower, Mike, and the GYSGT were providing security on the war-torn street while the LT was bent over Sullivan’s LACS. Coop only got a glance as he was plopped down on the opposite side of the wall, but it didn’t look good.

The other SGT had a duro-steel spike sticking out of his chest plate where his heart would normally be, and the LT’s face wasn’t a vote of confidence in his condition. Coop tried to hail his on TACCOM…nothing. He tried his IOR…nothing. He reached out to try and connect suit-to-suit with the man who’d helped cover the team’s retreat with him, but the LT held up a hand to stop him. She shook her head and looked back up at the SGM. The armored NCOIC hung his head for a second.

<Fuuuuuck,> Coop didn’t know if it was the drugs or sadness that was hitting him harder.

“We need to keep moving,” the SGM announced. There would be time to mourn later. “Cooper, can you move?”

“If you get me off my ass, I can stumble along, Sergeant Major,” Coop replied.

“If we can make it to the outskirts of the city, we should be able to keep our heads low and ride this out until the cavalry arrives.” The SGM set a waypoint on Coop’s HUD and then yanked him to his feet.

<Fine by me,> Coop thought as he limped forward. <I think I’ve fought enough for one day.>

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