Two Worlds – Chapter 304

Benjamin Gold

Location: Orbit, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The holo-tank was a nightmare. Ben and his team were tracking thousands of contacts…no…tens of thousands of contacts. On top of that, priority was being assigned to certain contracts that was turning the mass exodus of earth into a traffic jam of epic proportions. Ben had seen clusterfucks before. He’d even been a part of some, but he was positive he would never see anything like this ever again.

<And I’m just dealing with the few hundred contacts heading for Jack Frost.> He did not envy the astrogation control tasked with getting this makeshift refugee fleet organized.

Like a master pianist, Ben moved his hand through the holo-tank, assigning priorities, shifting incoming comms requests to the comms station, and assigning flight patterns for the Spyders, shuttles, and private yachts inbound to his battleship. He looked over and saw the wince as a PO2 at the comms station got another screamer.

Ben had no idea what was going on down on Earth, but obviously anyone with a ship that could break orbit was doing that. The problem he was quickly realizing was that many of the rich and famous preferred to have sub-light skiffs they could cruise around the system. Sure, more than likely they had FTL capable boats as well, but he knew from experience that it was much cheaper to dock your boat at Mars, where there was less traffic, it was cheaper, and the strict population controls kept another catastrophe like the overpopulation of earth from happening again.

At the moment, having a boat a hundred million miles away, with an unknown enemy fleet between you and it, the tax rates for luxury ships seemed like a comical secondary thought. For Ben, and the crew of Snowman, it meant everyone with a few million bucks to rub together thought they deserved special treatment.

The comms section had been in more than one screaming match with these rich assholes who thought they’d be able to park their little toys in the shuttle bay and take them to Alpha Centauri. The bay, and every other nook and cranny of the ship, was going to be loaded down with people, so that was an obvious no go.

<But try telling that to a third-generation trust fund kid with blue in his eyes who thinks that world is all about him and his precious twentieth century sports paraphernalia that just has to come to Centauri.> Ben rolled his eyes.He was more than aware that he was of the same trust fund kid breed, but he was in the CIC working his ass off to get people off the planet; not complaining and wasting precious time.

He turned back to the holo-tank and continued to do his job for a few more minutes until a high-pitched shrill went through the CIC. The lights dimmed red, and his holo-tank updated with multiple new contacts.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he didn’t bother to keep the thought to himself. “One-two unidentified contacts sunward at one-eight-one degrees, four hundred million kilometers and holding position.” He was calling out the enemy disposition when the lighting returned to normal. “New contacts identified as friendly, the Midas carrier group from Gold Technologies.” He breathed a sigh of relief. He couldn’t deal with another set of problems.

“Commodore Zahn sends his compliments,” the comms officer announced. “And requests orders for how he can best assist the evacuation.”

The comms officer was just relaying what was going on so the XO had situational awareness. Any orders from Snowman would come from the skipper on the bridge, but in this case, some admiral in charge of the makeshift fleet would let George Zahn know the best way him and his small group could help.

<How the hell did he even get here so fast.> Granted, Ben didn’t have any idea where the good Commodore was before this, but it was a little curious that word had gone out to the carrier group, when the rest of the fleet couldn’t even make contact with Mars.

“Gold, get down to the flight deck now!” the XO’s order cut through his thought process.

“Sir?” Ben asked.

“I don’t have time to say things twice, Gold. Get there now.” The XO was already moving on, and Ben was already on his shit list, so he got up and handed control over to his CPO.

He passed the marines guarding the CIC and took the lift to the deck with the flight deck. He passed more marines leading groups of well-dressed men and women down the corridors on his way. He heard them complaining that they were already filling up all the auditoriums and rec facilities. They’d be packed nut to butt all the way to Centauri.

If Ben thought the corridors were clogged, he was unprepared for the flight deck. People stood in squares as the quartermaster department worked at a frantic pace to move them out and new shuttles in. Ben saw an obviously wealthy couple yelling at a LT who was supervising their yacht being pushed out through the shield. The gray-haired man threatening a lawsuit, and the exhausted LT replying that the man could shut up and join the line or go down with his ship.

Now that Ben was down here, he had no idea what he was doing. He tried to stay out of the way of the organized chaos, but there was no out of the way anymore. Several deckhands gave him the stink eye, despite his gold stripes, and he couldn’t blame them. He stood there awkwardly for a few minutes until his IOR beeped with an incoming message. Everything became clear as a shuttle cleared the force field less than thirty seconds later. The admiral’s stars on the side and the transponders had the deck crew nearly in an apoplectic fit.

Ben immediately jogged over as the shuttle pivoted in the air to come down with its ramp facing the rear of the deck. Ben’s presence seemed to help the crewman, who went about their procedures for securing the ship, and left everything else to Ben.

As the ramp dropped, he assumed the position of attention and gave a crisp salute as a woman with five gold stripes descended the ramp.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold at your service, ma’am.” He dropped it when Admiral Berg gave him a quick, casual wave of her hand.

“I need to get to your flag bridge, and get me your skippers comms code,” she ordered, and he obeyed.

He didn’t know what the Chief of Naval Intelligence was doing on his boat, but it probably meant Snowman had just become one of the most important ships in the fleet. That gave him an idea. He sent a message to back to his team in the CIC to keep a look out for a number of ships, and if he spotted them, to get them routed to Jack Frost. It was against regs, but in the chaos he doubted anyone would notice or care.

He played guide and took the ADM to the flag bridge where the skipper was waiting for them. Whether the man was happy to see the woman or not, he didn’t show it, and Ben didn’t stay around long enough to find out. With a wave he was dismissed, and he got back to the CIC.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: North American Eastern Seaboard, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Heads up, everyone. It’s showtime!” The LT’s voice cut through the mundane nothingness that had been Coop’s existence since his squadron’s Spyder dropped him in the middle of nowhere. Well, not technically in the middle of nowhere.

There were two squads of reservist grunts charged with manning the TACCOM/STRATNET node buried underneath a hill behind him. The SSG in charge of the twenty men nearly shit his pants when Coop’s MOUNT was rolled out of the back of the bird. Up until then, they’d been guarding a piece of tech that wasn’t working. Now, they were an integral part of the atmospheric air defense plan. Which meant they now had a big bullseye painted on their heads.

They’d run a pair of cables out to his MOUNT and attached them to external data points Coop hadn’t even been trained on yet. That gave him a hardline to the Commonwealth’s main defensive mainframe, and how he learned everything was fucked because they’d been hacked. He saw messages from tech experts saying that wasn’t the case, but when the enemy got inside your system and made them a giant clusterfuck, Coop considered that a hack.

“TACCOM is showing three hundred inbound. I say again, we’ve got three-zero-zero enemy atmospheric craft entering the stratosphere. Designated Echo-One to Echo Three-Zero-Zero.”

The eastern seaboard of the former United States was almost twenty thousand kilometers, which meant if the enemy evenly spaced their drops the ships would be more than sixty kilometers apart. Since that plan was tactically retarded, Coop guessed they would bunch up in strategic locations, probably near big metropolises, where they could establish a beachhead. It was his job to make sure that didn’t happen.

It was only about fifty kilometers from the stratosphere to the surface, but the enemy was fighting the atmosphere and coming in on an east-west arch. His MOUNT’s AI calculated all of the data and highlighted a field of fire in red that he was responsible for. It started as a small part of the horizon in the distance the quickly widened as the enemy ships got closer.

“Staff Sergeant, you and your boys ready?” Coop sent to the NCO who’d turned into his ammo bitch.

“Yes, sir,” the man still didn’t sound happy about it, but it was the only thing he could do that made him useful.

“All units, engage at will,” the LT ordered.

His MOUNT’s vision magnified so his area of responsibility looked like it was right in front of him. His armored chest cavity popped open and his mini-missiles stuck their high-explosive heads out. At the appropriate moment, he fired them all. Dozens of missiles streamed out toward the incoming targets as the sky began to erupt. It was like someone had paid for a massive firework show that started at one point in the sky and works its way across. With all the MOUNTs protecting the coast, they had several missiles for each inbound target, but Coop doubted they’d get through. These bastards had destroyed Mars, he doubted they’d be able to put a dent in there…

{Target’s engaged,} his AI spoke in his head as his own missiles popped off with his own contribution to the show. {Battle damage assessment processing.} The explosions continued across the sky as more missiles joined the fray and the enemy drew closer. {One-eight enemy confirmed destroyed.}

<What?> Coop couldn’t believe his ears, but he didn’t have time to dwell.

His next-gen magnetic accelerator was already tracking across the sky. He would feel the hum as the weapon powered up, followed by a jerk as it fired. He left it to the AI as the armor’s mechanism reloaded the single shot weapon and he scanned for another target. It located a boxy blob, hummed, and fired. The enemy ships were getting closer and closer, and there was no way he’d be able to take them all out before they were on top of him.

His armor blared with an incoming fire warning as he shot off a third round and blew another blob out of the sky. Bolts of energy lanced around his position; one striking his shield and depleting it by half. The SSG was already running for his life, but a blast caught him, vaporizing him and turning his to ash.

<Shit,> Coop cursed as he moved to avoid more incoming fire from more ships bearing down on him. <Shoot, move, and communicate.> His accelerator hummed and fired as he moved.

He was about to pivot and bring his shot-range graviton cannon to bear on the enemy, when he felt his foot snag on something.

“Motherfucker!” Coop swore as his MOUNT’s servo whined to keep him upright. It failed, but he was able to get his hands out in front of himself, so his two cannons didn’t get buried in the dirt, but it didn’t stop the enemy’s fire from stitching its way across his shoulders, back, ass, and legs.

Red warnings blared and then everything went black. “Endex,” the LT called as the simulation ended. Coop’s vision returned to the world where is armor was on its hands and knees.

He quickly got to his feet, and ignored the laughter of the grunts that had gathered to run the exercise. He gave them a finger as he dialed into the after action report being led by the LT. This was the unit’s third exercise in half as many days, and none had gone well. However, this was the first time he’d tripped over the conduits attaching him to the information systems; systems that still didn’t work.

He knew what his comment to the LT was going to be. Ditch the stupid cables and let them engage the enemy on their own. The enemy would be able to cut whatever limited comms the friendly units in the area had anyway once they landed. They should all get used to fighting on their own.

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Bonus Chapter – Two Worlds – Chapter 303

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Assembly Area Kansas, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“What the shit was that,” Coop automatically dropped to one knee to reduce his profile.

Everyone waiting in the obscenely long chow line looked up at the flash in the sky. Coop’s first guess was orbital combat, but his brief scan didn’t show anything in low orbit returning fire. It was just the one, bright flash.

“Something tells me we’re going to be missing hot chow for a while.” An older NCO grimaced and exited the chow line.

That was blasphemy to Coop. no one got out of a chow line…no one…without good reason. As if the universe was giving him the giant finger, his IOR pinged softly.

{Movement orders for Operation Shield Wall,} was the title. Coop sighed as PADs all around him beeped, chipped, and chimed as the rest of the orders started to filter down to the enlisted personnel.

“Fuck me,” Coop whispered as waypoints and time hacks started to appear in his vision. Whatever was happening, the LT wanted him synching up with his armor in the next thirty minutes.

It would take fifteen minutes to do that, and five minutes to get to the makeshift armory the MOUNTs were stashed in. By Coop’s count, that gave him ten minutes to eat. The line was rapidly clearing and soldiers hurried off to their assemble areas. Whatever was going to happen looked like it was kicking off soon. The old soldier had been right. This was the last chance for hot chow until god knew when. Other soldiers at least got MREs. Coop and the other armored cavalry WOs got tubes stuck down their throats for water and nutrient sludge.

It was the sign of a true soldier that Coop was willing to take a chance for hot chow over the possibility of getting chewed out by the LT, but as the line quickly evaporated, he was confident he could have his cake and eat it too…literally; there was chocolate cake. Because he was a good boyfriend and baby daddy, he made sure to grab one for Eve.

His belly stuffed, and a smudge of chocolate across this breast, he headed back for the armory. <I don’t envy the MOUNTs waste recycling system when I shit out this brick,> he chuckled to himself as he ran his finger on the chocolate goodness that was the icing on Eve’s cake.

He was a good boyfriend, not a saint. He savored the sugar on his tongue as he entered the controlled chaos of the armory.

“Coop, stop sucking that finger like it’s your girlfriend’s titty and get over here,” Camila shouted for everyone in the entire company to hear.

The dragoons of third squadron were all huddled up around the LT, who had a portable holo-tank with a map of the continent open in front of her. She looked like she was mid-brief. Coop pulled up the time hack from his orders and saw they were blinking red and showing he was five minutes late. He’d minimized them when he got his chow, and apparently someone had moved the time up.

As Coop approached, the LT gave him a hard look, but didn’t say anything else. The look was enough. It said quite clearly, <I’ll deal with you later.>

“The brass is still figuring out the concept of operations,” she continued without missing a beat. “What we do know, and what hasn’t changed, is that our battalion is a strategic resource. We’re the toughest thing we’ve got on planet, so wherever the fighting is the hottest, that is where we’ll be.”

“What’s the threat?” Coop knew he should keep his mouth shut, he’d missed that part of the OPORDR by being late, but he couldn’t not know.

“Unsure,” the LT looked down at the holo-tank’s controls, and the other dragoons looked away. They’d clearly been through this song and dance before.

“Unknown enemy, unknown capabilities, roger that,” Coop decided not to be an ass about it. The LT was operating with only as much as information as was given to her.

The LT looked relieved and continued. “Third squadron will be deploying individually. Camilla, you and Coop will be stationed in this vicinity,” she highlighted two locations. One in Carolina Sector, and the other a hundred-plus kiometers to the south. “Anything coming down from orbit toward the east coast will pass through several squadron’s AOs. We’ll be hard linked in with local defense forces anti-air sensors…”

“Hard linked?” Based on the looks on the other dragoon’s faces, Coop wasn’t the only one who didn’t get it.

“Everything is shot to shit. All software not hardwired is unreliable at best and deadly at worst.” There was something more to that statement, but Coop didn’t press it. “Ok, so we’ll be hardwired to the net, but verify anything with your own sensors. Line of sight seems to be the most reliable. We’ll provide anti-air as needed and then movement to contact with the enemy when they land. Our purpose is to disrupt any chance of the enemy to establish a beachhead. Local forces will react as needed, but be prepared to move. Spyders are being reconfigured to carry one of us and spare parts. No telling how long this will last.” She continued. The LT was going to be stationed nearly in New York Sector.

Coop pulled up the OPORDR and schematic attachments. He had to give it to the brass, they had thought it out. The eastern seaboard was some of the most heavily populated territory on the planet, and the overlapping and interlocked defenses were going to be a tough nut for the enemy to crack. Coop and Camila were a just a cog, a bigger cog, but a cog nonetheless in the plan. He continued to scan the lengthy document until he saw where Eve was going to be. Miraculously, she was going to be stationed at the naval hospital.

<Damn if that girl doesn’t get what she wants.> he smiled.

“Ok everyone, let’s suit up.” The LT finished and the four dragoons hustled to their MOUNTs.

Coop wasn’t looking forward to getting cramped into a ball again, but he was ready for this hurry up and wait shit to be over. If they were going to fight then he wanted them to get it over with.

He just hoped his kid wasn’t caught in the middle if things went to shit.

 

***

 

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: Orbit, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

A high-pitched shrill went through the ship, “All hands, this is your captain.” The voice on the 1MC was somber. Everything that had happened recently was tinged with sadness.

It was one of those moments human beings would look back on as turning points in history: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941; September 11, 2001; the first strike of the Last Terran War, November 7, 2088; first landing on Alpha Centauri May 1, 2153. And now, added to that list of famous and infamous points in history, the destruction of Mars.

“What we have all witnessed here today is an incalculable tragedy. Not even the most notorious Blockie Admiral would stoop so low as to drop a moon on a planet.”

<That’s because a no one could drop a moon on a planet until today.>

“The Sol system has seen nothing like this for over sixty-five million years, but we are no dinosaurs.” Resolve started to seep back into the man’s voice. “We do not know who we face, or what their full capabilities are, but we will not rest until Mars is avenged. We will not tire until this enemy has been wiped from our skies, and vaporized down to the atom. Earth is our home and we will defend it till our dying breath. That is our job, our sole purpose. We are First Fleet, the rock of earth, and we will not let her fall.”

Ben wasn’t one for sappy speeches, but after what he’d just seen, he felt his chest swell with pride. It didn’t matter that the fleet had basically given him the shaft. It didn’t matter than he was on his way out sooner rather than later. What mattered was that something was attacking his home, the home of humanity. What mattered was he was in a position to do something about it.

“We have a change of mission,” the captain continued, a hint of bitterness tinging his words. “Admiral Duvall was too late to prevent Mars, and the joint fleet is turning and burning its way back toward Earth. The enemy has started to depart Mars orbit and oriented itself towards Earth. Estimated time of arrival is eleven hours. The enemy’s propulsion capabilities are superior to ours. It is too early to tell whether they will overtake the joint fleet as it attempts to return.”

Ben took a deep breath. It was a commander’s worst nightmare to be caught out of position and at the mercy of physics. Ben couldn’t even imagine what Duvall was feeling right now.

“If the admiral is able to return, he will rally at Luna. The rest of the Blockie’s Motherland Fleet is burning for the moon, as well as a portion of the Euro’s Home Fleet. Along with the defensive rings, the combined fleets hope to hold the enemy.”

Ben quickly pulled up a system map, and for once, the universe seemed to smile on them. If the enemy held to their estimated time table, Luna would be directly in the path of the oncoming fleet. It was a brilliant stroke of luck. The firepower on the defensive rings was more than the fleets combined.

“A task force from the Euro’s fleet and our own remaining ships have been ordered to assist with evacuations.”

Ben felt the collective groan of the ship as anger gripped the entire crew. The greatest battle in human history was about to unfold, and they’d be baby-sitting. Ben knew the military’s job was to protect the civilians, to put themselves between the innocent and the enemy, but despite that, their mission felt like a cop out.

The memory of Jacobi’s face getting a hot dog from New York’s mid-city flittered through his mind, and a mild panic filled him. Suddenly, getting civilians off the planet seemed like the most important job in the world.

“All but one of the marine companies and all of the Spyders are ordered to scramble and clear the flight deck. Company commanders will receive orders from earth command when you touch down. The remaining company will work with crew to provide crowd control. The rest of the crew, prepare to take on civilians. We will load up to what our life support can sustain and escort a fleet of civilian ships out of the local gravity well. Once we achieve that they will jump to wherever they want, and carry word of the attack on Earth to the corners of the Commonwealth. We will make a least-time portal to Alpha Centauri, drop the civilians and return to continue the fight. This might not be what we want, but it is our mission. Get to it. Captain, out.”

Ben, and everyone else aboard Jack Frost did just that. They were about to have a lot of company.

 

***

 

ADM Sonya Berg

Location: On Earth approach, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Admiral Berg felt completely and totally helpless. She’d watched the destruction of Second Fleet with silent terror. She had data to relay to the defenders of earth, but she didn’t know what help it would be. Not now. Not after all that they’d already witnessed.

She thought of her family. Derrick was still in rehab on earth. Eve was on earth with her unit. Her unborn granddaughter was on earth, <Hell, even Cooper is on earth.>

“TACCOM and STRATNET are offline here too, ma’am,” her staff officer at the comms station announced. “We’ll be in tight-beam range in twelve minutes. I’m putting together a burst package for transmission to the rest of First Fleet, although most of the fleet looks long gone.”

“After what happened to Mars, they’ll be forming a defensive front around Luna. They can’t allow what happened there to happen to earth.” Sonya informed, and the rest of the crew nodded understanding. “Send it to the first capital ship we get on our scope, they’ll daisy chain it to everyone who’s left.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sonya continued to watch the plot, and the increasing amount of surface-to-space traffic that was showing up on their scanners as they got closer.

“Is that…”

“An evacuation,” Sonya confirmed.

Everyone with a space worthy craft looked like they were getting the hell out of dodge. As a portion of Earth’s population, that was a fraction of a fraction. Tens of billions of people lived on humanity’s homeworld and in the orbital habitats. A chunk of those people lived off government subsidies in PHAs or other environments. So this evacuation boiled down to nothing more than the rich getting out of town while the poor stayed to die, and the military died for them.

<It’s a shitty world,> she sighed, and knew there was nothing she could do about it.

“Comms package away,” the officer announced a few minutes later. “What now?”

“Get us to the nearest ship with a flag bridge,” Sonya ordered.

She wasn’t going to be able to do much, but at least from there she could access her network. When shit hit the fan, she could at least direct people to where it was the deepest.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 295

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Why don’t we step inside and talk,” Hailey gestured to the room she’d emerged from.

Coop might not be the brightest guy in the world, but he wasn’t stupid enough to fall for that one. “I think this nice, cozy hallway is just fine,” he kept his smile going, and damn if those recruiter dentists didn’t do a good job. Instead of shooting him, Hailey just rolled her eyes and crossed her arms across her chest. The gesture got Eve to relax too.

“Ok,” he rubbed his hands together, “Let’s start with what you want, and what I can do to help.”

<Maybe I should have been a recruiter after all,> he smiled to himself with a mental chuckle.

“Well…to start, you owe me about a hundred grand in lost product and revenue that was pre-positioned based on our verbal agreement before you ghosted me.” Hailey wasn’t smiling.

Coop’s grin slipped off his face as his ego took a gut punch.

“Somehow I doubt the Commonwealth’s intelligence sharing agreement with you back on New Savannah had anything to do with you pushing guns, drugs, and ass,” Eve scoffed.

Hailey’s glare flicked back to Eve and her hand twitched toward her gun before she could stop herself. Eve’s hand tightened around her own pistol’s grip, so Coop jumped back in.

“Obviously, Eve has a point, Hailey. The Commonwealth, even for vital intel, wasn’t going to turn a blind eye and let you do whatever you wanted. That being said,” he quickly added as Hailey’s face soured, “I know I screwed you personally, to a degree, and I’ll pay for that. I won’t and can’t pay a hundred grand, but…” he quickly checked his bank account. Not the MFAS account where all his military pay was deposited, but a few choice, seedier accounts he’d set up for his side deals. He hadn’t touched them in months after the heat from Harper’s Junction, and recently Eve’s mom, but now seemed like a good time to take the risk. “…I can give you ten grand right now.”

“Fifty,” she automatically countered. Coop knew this was going to be a negotiation even before it began. The hundred grand number was probably high to begin with.

“Fifteen.”

“Forty.”

“Twenty.”

“Thirty-five.”

“Twenty-two and a half,” Coop started to vary his tactics. Partly because it was a good strategy, and partly because he needed to be thrifty. He did have a kid on the way after all.

“Fine, twenty-five, final offer,” Hailey looked pained, but he could work with that.

“Deal,” Coop held out his hand to shake on it.

“Sorry, Coop, but your word doesn’t mean much to me anymore,” her comment hurt more than Coop was willing to admit. “We’re good when I see the money in my account.”

“Fair enough, give me your info.” Coop received the details and made the transfer. Five digits disappeared from his account and a soft chime announced their arrival in Hailey’s. Like a gentleman, he covered the transfer fees.

She checked the balance and with a nod slipped her PAD back in her pocket. If she had questions about how Coop did it all without the now-obsolete device, she didn’t ask. “Good. We’re square, so want to tell me what you’re doing here?”

“We’re here to see his father,” Eve spoke up. “We’ve got some news we’d like to tell him in person.”

“So, you two are getting hitched, or you finally knocked someone up,” Hailey stated immediately. “Those are the only two reasons I can think why you would come back to this shithole and talk to a man you hate.” She looked around with disgust. “Since you’d only be coming back to rub his face in it, I’ll save you the trouble. Walter is dead. Going on awhile now.”

Coop, didn’t expect the news to hit him as hard as it did. He’d watched men die in front of him, and he’d killed more than his fair share. He’d lost his leg, twice, and seen the woman he loved tortured and mutilated. Hearing dear old dad had finally kicked the bucket shouldn’t hold a candle to that. Despite all of that, he felt his legs go wobbly, and he needed to steady himself against the wall.

<Both my parents are dead.> The thought solidified in his mind as he took a few deep breaths to compose himself. His mom’s suicide was an old wound that was ripped open.

“How?” was the only question he could think to ask.

Dealing with his inner turmoil, he missed the twitch of Hailey’s face. But Eve didn’t. Wisely, she didn’t say a thing.

“Gangs finally got him,” she replied simply and ambiguously.

Coop merely nodded. His dad was dead and having it be in the most likely way was a small comfort. “Did he suffer?”

“Not from what I’ve heard,” Hailey was slow to respond, but Coop failed to notice again.

“Ok,” Coop took a very deep breath, and tried to blow out all the internal conflict as he stood up straight. “I need a drink,” he looked to Eve for a bit of comfort, and she nodded. After the encounter, she could probably use one too.

“Since you tend to pop up unexpectedly, I’m going to assume I’ll see you again at some point,” he looked over his shoulder at Hailey.

She just shrugged as she waved for her people to gather up while Eve and Coop made their way back to the departure platforms.

The SGT manning the machine gun emplacement waved over the LT when he saw them approach.

“Just hopping back on,” Coop told him succinctly. “Turns out we don’t need to be here after all.”

“Sorry,” the LT replied with a stern look. “All mag-lev trains are shut down for the foreseeable future.”

“Shut down!” Eve pushed Coop aside and towered over the smaller officer. “We’ve got movement orders from our commander. We need to get out of here now.”

“Not my problem,” the LT shrugged and turned around to walk away. Coop had to grab Eve’s shoulder to stop her from spinning the little man back around.

“Call the commander,” Coop suggested. That would help with her frustration while he scanned for alternative courses of action.

Unlike them, Hailey and the PFH goons hadn’t headed for the train. They were headed for the stairs down to the PHA proper.

“Hey,” he called after them. “Where’re you going?”

She just raised an eyebrow in response as she looked over the gathered soldiers. Coop left Eve’s side while she engaged with their command over the IOR.

“I know you sure as shit aren’t staying here overnight, and the trains are locked down,” Cooper whispered to Hailey. “That means you’ve got a way out of here.”

“Maybe,” she gave a coy smile that he’d seen many times before. “But it’s gonna cost you.”

“How much?” Coop sighed with his own eye roll. “Do I at least get the friends and family discount?”

“It’s normally a grand per passenger, but since you were a good fuck once upon a time, and you have to have gotten that big bitch preggers, I’ll do it for five hundred a pop,” Hailey replied.

Coop looked over his shoulder to where Eve had reengaged the LT, and the officer was still shaking his head. “Deal. Half once we leave the station and half when we’re out of here.”

“Fine,” she crossed her arms and waited.

A few minutes later, Eve walked over looking dejected, which quickly turned to annoyance when she saw Coop and Hailey standing together.

“The reserves aren’t talking to, or taking orders, from a commander out of their chain of command. It’ll take more time to go up the chain of dick measurers than it will for us to walk back. We’ve been ordered to find alternative methods of transportation.”

“Done,” Coop smiled. “Let’s get moving so we aren’t late for formation.

Eve looked at Hailey without bothering to hide her contempt. “Figures. You like a good ride.”

Hailey bristled, but Coop quickly inserted himself between the two women. “Here’s the money. Let’s get out of here.” He made the transfer and steered everyone away from the station.

<Now I just need to avoid getting shot by one of them for the next few hours and then I’m home free.> It was a tall order. He’d faced better odds against the Windsor’s.

 

ADM Sonya Berg

Location: Naval Intelligence Black site, Codename “Umbra”, Asteroid Belt, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Sonya scrutinized the data in front of her from the QE burst Umbra had picked up on its way to the Mars node. It was the reason Second Fleet was scrambling, and it had to be the reason there was a bubble of nothingness headed straight for the cradle of human civilization. The problem was…the data didn’t offer a lot to go off of.

It was a grainy image, taken by a scope of some sort. The corresponding sensor data showed nothing but empty space, so either this was some naturally occurring phenomenon or the data was corrupted somehow. They only had the picture to go off of, and its poor quality left only so much for the AIs to enhance, pull, and speculate about.

“It looks like a cigar,” one of her staff members spoke to themselves where they had broken into groups to analyze the data. “We’ve seen interstellar objects with this shape pass harmlessly through our system.”

“Second Fleet command wouldn’t put the entire planet on high alert because of some previously-seen, naturally-occurring phenomenon,” someone challenged the theory. “Plus, look here. It’s hard to see, but there are some glints reflecting the light. Umbra’s AI has those as a seventy-three percent probability of precise right angles. Those don’t occur naturally. Those are ships.”

<Big ships,> Sonya thought as she stood in the center of the working groups and pondered the information they did have.

It was difficult to get an exact measurement with the poor quality, but her IOR estimated the tonnage to be about thirty percent larger than an assault carrier. That was bigger than anything put the prototype Dreadnaughts in the Commonwealth’s dockyards, but it wasn’t bigger than what the Commonwealth had faced before. The Windsor’s Superdreadnaughts were larger than what the scope had caught a glimpse of, but this could be something new they’d designed in retaliation for Harper’s Junction. Plus, the shape of the warships was roughly similar to the Windsor’s designs.

<If only I had something three dimensional,> her hands twitched involuntarily as she thought about manipulating data in a holo-tank in front of her. She sighed and instead used those hands to rub her eyes. She’d gone the last twenty four hours without sleep, and as the unidentifiable mass passed Jupiter, with all the refineries and stations ceasing the communicate as it approached, it was getting tougher to think of anything else when she closed her eyes.

A spark of insight flashed in her mind and she grinned. <Instead of trying to see what is there, we need to extrapolate from what isn’t.>

“Umbra,” she addressed the newly installed AI that ran the covert listening post. “I want you to extrapolate based on the following parameters: estimated size of the sphere of interference, estimated size of the ship in the image, and cross reference that with known Windsor naval strategies; specifically, fleet dispersion regulations.” She turned to see her staff staring at her. “We aren’t going to be getting any new data. All we have is a grainy picture, so we need to use that and what we know to fill in the blanks.”

“We need to know the size of the enemy force,” it was the shuttle pilot who finally put it all together.

“I have the data you requested, Admiral Berg,” Umbra’s AI voice was a deep, masculine rumble.

“Put it in the holo-tank and my IOR.” The data rushed into her vision and appeared in front of her team.

It wasn’t pretty.

Taking into consideration the estimated size of the ship, and Windsor naval doctrine, the bubble of empty space advancing on Mars held approximately seven hundred and fifty-three of the new warships with unknown capabilities.

“Cross-reference with fleet dispositions from the attack on Queensland and refresh,” she ordered.

The number floored Sonya, and quickly sparked alarm in her staff. If the same fleet disposition of warships attacked Mars that attacked Queensland, Second Fleet was looking at close to fifteen hundred enemy warships baring down on them. Second Fleet had four hundred ships in her MTOE, with only forty percent being battleships and ten assault carriers.

Panic started to flare through her staff, but after the shock of the numbers passed, confusion set in. Her IOR quickly adapted and brought up the information she was searching for. One of her briefings from less than a month ago had estimated the Windsor’s naval strength. All of the Houses and the Imperial fleet weren’t even half of that number after the losses they’d taken at Harper’s Junction.

<So, this is some last ditch attempt to take out the Commonwealth?> Sonya hypothesized, but that didn’t make sense. If the Windsor’s were going to beat down the Commonwealth they’d go for New Washington or Asgard.

The Sol System wasn’t a Commonwealth system, it was humanity’s home system. Sure, the Commonwealth owned most of it, but there were other powers at play here. First and Second Fleet together massed about three quarters of the possible attacking force. That alone wouldn’t be enough. But it wasn’t just Commonwealth facilities that had gone offline since this whole thing started. EU and Blockie installations had also stopped transmitting. Umbra had picked up transmissions that Beijing was throwing a fit and blaming the Commonwealth, but she knew that was a kneejerk reaction. Once it became clear the Windsor’s were taking on everyone, they’d have the EU’s Home Fleet to contend with. While not as large as First or Second Fleet, or the Blockie’s massive Motherworld Fleet, it was still a force to contend with; especially thanks to the mutual defense treaty that had the Commonwealth sharing the new Hegemony tech with them. The PM was sharing the tech slowly, but the Euros were an inventive people, and with no wars to zap their strength, they could put that new tech to good use.

Together, the fleets of the three major starfaring nations outnumbered the incoming force, so why were they attacking?

<Trying to set the stage for negotiations? They want to be in a position of power before coming to the table? Maybe something else is forcing them into actions?> For the hundredth time she cursed her limited network inside the Empire. She didn’t like all this guessing. She wanted facts.

“Ma’am, we need to get this data to Second Fleet,” one of her staffers interrupted her thoughts and brought her back on task.

“Yes, Umbra…” she stopped herself. So far anything and everything that could communicate had gone silent outside the asteroid belt. If she transmitted, there was little doubt Umbra would suffer the same fate. Whatever was happening, the Commonwealth still needed Umbra’s secret network operational.

“Everyone back to shuttle, we’re heading back to Mars. Umbra, transfer all data to my IOR.”

“Yes, Admiral. Have a nice trip.” The station AI did as she instructed as they headed back toward the small landing bay.

“Ma’am,” the pilot came up to her as they all hustled aboard the shuttle. “We’re not going to be able to make it back to Mars,” a 3D holo appeared in his hand with the course for them overlapped with the approaching enemy fleet. They didn’t make it back before the enemy. Mars’s orbit just wasn’t doing them any favors.

“We can make it to Earth and transmit the data when we think we’re at a safe distance,” another course appeared on the holo.

“Ok,” Sonya nodded as she digested the information. If they could warn Second Fleet that was good enough. First Fleet, Home Fleet, and the Motherworld Fleet were all stationed around Earth. If Second Fleet failed, the rest of the fleets would have the data they needed to crush the enemy.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 292

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Bethesda Fleet Hospital, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Coop stepped out of the front doors of the hospital and took his IOR off Privacy Mode. The ability to turn on and off the influx of messages into his brain was a godsend. In less than two years, Coop had gone from a PHA rat who’d thought owning a microwave was a luxury, to having some of the most advanced tech available to mankind sitting in his brain or powered by his thoughts and movements. It was a pretty drastic leap, and as everything he did became more connected to technology – in this case his brainwaves – it was increasingly rare that he had the ability to just turn it all off. Mankind had been addicted to tech since the mid-twentieth century, this was just taking things to the next level.

<Pretty soon everywhere and everything is going to be piping info into our brains whether we want it or not,> Coop thought as he looked around. Even now, the hospital had some notices and advertisements for drugs visible only through the IOR. <I wonder how much the drug companies had to bride the contracting officers for that,> he mentally chuckled as routine messages started to flow past his peripherals.

As a soldier, his Privacy Mode didn’t automatically keep out all incoming messages. Anything with priority or alert status would get through, along with anything along the public emergency bandwidth. He wasn’t sure what civilians’ settings looked like, and he doubted he ever would.

<Wooooooo, pump the breaks,> the thought brought him mentally and physically to a screeching halt. He’d never thought of himself as a lifer. He knew it’d be a pain in the ass to get any upgrades removed, but it had never crossed his mind before that this was what he wanted to do with his life. With the baby on the way, Eve, and his lucky streak of primo assignments it didn’t sound like a bad fulltime gig. Plus, if he did fifty years, he’d get a full twenty-five-year pension. <Hold the phone. This seems like a problem for future Coop,” he shook his head and looked over at Eve, who’d also stopped.

Her eyes were unfocused as she looked through her own messages, and then she went pale…or paler than usual.

“Fuck,” she muttered, as a forwarded message appeared in Coop’s vision.

It was only four words: we need to talk, but the signature underneath left no room for interpretation. The Admiral knew that her family was about to get a little bigger, and judging by his previous interactions with her, Coop would need to be on the lookout for assassins unless he was in his MOUNT.

“Fuck,” Coop’s groan echoed his girlfriend’s as his shoulders slumped.

“Well,” Eve brushed the impending doom hanging over their heads away with amazing speed, “now that my side of the family knows, do you want to tell yours?”

The question caught him completely off guard. “Tell my dad?” he asked in the same tone he would if someone asked him to dismantle an antimatter warhead with a pair of tweezers and no instructions.

“Sure, he’s your father.” Eve shrugged and mentally ordered one of the base’s provided taxis to take them to the nearest maglev station. What’s he going to do? Spank you?”

Eve’s relationship with her father had been very different than Coop’s, which he suspected was clouding her judgment. <Still,> Coop looked at himself in the cab’s reflective window as it arrived.

He wasn’t some skinny little shit who relied on the government’s BSA rations to survive day-to-day anymore. He’d fought and killed pirates, Windsor soldiers, bluffed a Queen, been to a golden alien city in the sky, gotten his smoking hot girlfriend pregnant, and would most likely have to dodge a firing squad from the pissed-off chief of naval intelligence in the near future. There was no way he was going to chicken out seeing the old man again.

“I saw what you did there,” Coop gave credit where credit was due as the driverless cab headed across the giant medical campus. “Playing to my ego to get what you want…nice.”

Eve just smiled back. “It works every time.”

“Every time?” Coop laughed, as the sides of Eve’s mouth pulled into a mischievous smile.

“Sure,” she shrugged like it was nothing. “Do you honestly think I was being serious the first time I saw your dick back after Basic and said I thought it was so big it wasn’t going to fit.”

Coop’s laugh died in his throat. “Damn, Eve, that’s just cold.” He went back to looking out the window as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders.

“Sorry, just trying to take your mind off what you’re about to do. I know it’s tough. Your dad is like my mom, and the last thing you want to do is have them piss on your parade. It doesn’t matter if you could crush him with your giant dick,” she kissed him on the cheek and made him smile. “He’s still your only remaining parent and you silently yearn for his approval.”

“No I don’t,” he scoffed, but he didn’t believe it nearly as much as he should. “Fuck,” he breathed out and pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration.

<Why is she always right?”>

The cab pulled up to the medical campus’ maglev station and gave its robotic thanks while listing advertisements that neither of them listened to. As they both climbed out, something amber flashed in their peripherals. Coop brought it up and frowned.

“You get this?” he quickly read the note from Commander Snow.

“Yeah, we’re mustering at 0200 for a mission of a mission TBD. Wow, that’s the shittiest WARNO I’ve ever received,” Eve frowned. “We can make it to your PHA and back by 0100. We’ll have to sleep on the train, and we won’t have more than an hour with your dad, but considering this is probably the only time you’re going to see him, I think we should take it.”

Unlike everyone else, Coop gave what Eve thought a lot of credence. “Ok,” he agreed and they purchased the maglev tickets and ran up the stairs to catch the train. Since this wasn’t official travel they didn’t get to ride for free, but Eve got them a discount. Still, having to spend his hard-earned cash to go and see a man he didn’t really like was frustrating.

<We’ve got to start saving for the baby now,> Coop thought about all the crap kids needed and felt a little nauseous. <And there is no way in hell Grandma Admiral is going to get too involved there.> He knew there were always strings attached to that woman, and he didn’t want his kid being some puppet she used against him.

He was deep in thought as he found his seat on the train that he missed the man in a suit and tie, who looked like he was commuting back to the burbs from his office job, pull out his PAD, take a picture of Coop, and send it into cyber space for confirmation.

 

***

 

ADM Sonya Berg

Location: Naval Intelligence Black site, Codename “Umbra”, Asteroid Belt, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

The pilot approached a nondescript-looking asteroid on the shuttle’s highest emissions controls. Positioning thrusters fired wildly as the shuttles AI tracked incoming debris and avoided it.

“You sure, ma’am?” The asteroid looked just like the one next to it and the billion other ones sitting in the belt between Mars and the outer planets of the Sol System.

“I’m sure,” ADM Berg nodded. “Take us around to the other side and I’ll tell you where to go.”

The pilot followed her orders and approached a crater on the far side. Like most asteroid bases, camps, or mining operations, there were no man-made markings or giant doors – which were now forcefields thanks to the upgrades – denoting where to park a shuttle or hauler. The pilot slid expertly into the crater and down a hidden tunnel in the side behind a large boulder. Nothing bigger than a Spyder could fit down the cramped passage. After a bit of winding, they reached a dead-end.

Sonya moved quickly. The asteroid had nearly no gravity and keeping the shuttle from scraping against the walls was a full-time job. To the small crew’s surprise, she donned an EVA suit and sent outside. She went to the dead-end, walked twenty-five paces against the wall on her left, and then had to feel around for a second before she found the hidden panel. Surprisingly, it connected with her IOR and sought her GIC and memorized verification codes.

<Someone has been out to update,> she nodded in approval. Her codes were accepted and a seam split the asteroid wall in front of them to expose a small hangar. She walked the rest of the way while the pilot maneuvered inside. Once the sensors acknowledged their passing the hidden doors closed back up, the lights came on, and atmosphere started to pump into the space.

Unlike most asteroid bases, Umbra wasn’t built for prolonged habitation, but it was built to last. The facility was nearly three centuries old, and had only stayed a secret for so long because of its stringent security procedures. If no one was there, it was in standby mode. You needed to physically access the security system to gain entrance, not just transmit codes. The emission signature of the place was a blip even when it was active due to compartmentalization, and it was drilled into anyone with access to the facility to only use what you needed…nothing more.

When it all started, Umbra was nothing more than a listening post. It had originally been built during the first wave of expansion when mankind moved into the outer system. Mother Earth was still the centerpiece of the Sol system back then, so everyone was always calling back for orders, sending reports, or just gossiping. In other words, those communications were ripe with intelligence possibilities. Umbra, and its communications network spread among the asteroid belt, were what the Commonwealth used to intercept that data and analyze it.

It was used that way for nearly a century until the second wave of the expansion really took hold and people started to leave the Sol system. It still had its uses gathering data sent from ship’s transitioning back to the outer system dockyards and sending reports back to Beijing, Moscow, or even Paris, Berlin, and other allied capitols. The Commonwealth didn’t discriminate when data crossed the Umbra network.

For most of its history the station had remained a mystery, not even an urban legend until roughly fifty years ago. Some stupid bureaucrat forgot to redact something that was sent to some local district governor about potential Blockie movements. The info got leaked to the media, and the mysterious Umbra was born. The network went into to standby mode for three years after the report was leaked and had been reactivated piecemeal over a ten-year timeframe. It was up and running at one hundred percent now, which was why Sonya went straight to the recently upgraded communications nodes to see what they’d gathered.

The answer was…not much.

“Transmissions are being…sabotaged,” a communication’s specialist she’d brought along declared with a frown. “You can see the transmission log chain,” she pointed at a sequence of numbers.

“What is the origination point and where is it being intercepted?” Sonya looked closely at the screen and tried to bring up her specialized communication’s training from decades ago.

“We’ve got batches here for the mining colony on Pluto, and then from some of the stations over Neptune,” her face scrunched as she bent closer to the screen. “We’ve got Titan in here, and then some of the installations on Jupiter. The transmissions are…”

“Moving closer to Earth,” Sonya put it together herself. “Can you figure out what is corrupting the data?”

The specialist brought up a slice of data, and the whole terminal went on the fritz. “Shit,” the man hit an emergency shutdown button and the terminal died with a smoky sputter. Thankfully, all of the terminals were independent for just this type of security concern.

“Don’t do that again,” Sonya rubbed her eyes as she watched the dead terminal. <Whatever this thing is, it’s here to kill us.> whatever that was it looked like it had been slowly working its way across the outer system and eliminating anything in its path. Or at least everyone’s ability to warn anyone else what was coming.

“Do we have anything we can work with?” Sonya was looking for one ray of sunshine in the void of failure.

The specialist brought up another terminal and carefully went through the data. Some looked good, but the man disregarded them because he said they were too suspicious. Finally, he landed something near the beginning of the transmissions.

“Looks like someone deploying a new QE buoy was able to get something out. Instead of going through Titan and getting spiked, it made it all the way to the node over Mars. Umbra picked it up, so this is probably what set off the alert.” He carefully set up multiple firewalls before opening the data.

Sonya looked closely, assuming one thing, but seeing another.

“Fuck,” she took a deep breath and rubbed her temples with her thumbs. “This isn’t going to end well.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 291

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Bethesda Fleet Hospital, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The white wall was flawless in its normality. Coop had scoured it with his gaze for the last hour and not found a single blemish. The fleet hospital just outside the ruins of the old United States capitol was the largest medical facility in Earth’s western hemisphere. It was a city unto itself. Coop’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull when their shuttle descended through the pollution fog and onto a waiting landing pad. If anything, it was the only thing that had brought him out of the state of shock he’d been in for the last few hours.

<I’m gonna be a Daddy.> The thought rampaged through his mind for the thousandth time, quickly followed by, <this has got to be a fucking joke.> But none of his squadron, or hidden holo-cam crew jumped out to say he’d been bamboozled by a practical joke or some holo-comedy that was fucking with people on purpose.

He really wished this was a holo-show. If it was, he’d know how to reply. It usually was one of three responses. The first was a genuine, exuberant acceptance of the bundle of joy that would enter the parents’ life in nine months. The next was a denial, questioning if the baby was his, or lastly, complete shock at the unexpected news. Coop’s response wasn’t the first, he’d gracefully avoided committing the second, and had settled on the third.

<And it doesn’t feel like it’s going to wear off anytime soon.> He thought as he resumed looking at the wall. <At least it doesn’t smell like bleached asshole in here.> Now that he was going to be a father, he was a little embarrassed that he knew what bleached asshole smelled like. Some of the strippers on Mars had been thorough in their hygiene.

Their squadron commanders had been kind enough to grant them three day passes when the news filtered down to them. Like Eve, they wanted this taken care of as soon as possible, and that meant a plan of action. Eve was in full planning mode with the doctors while Coop sat there still trying to distinguish up from down.

<This would probably be easier if my only view of my father wasn’t as a raging asshat.> It was the first time Coop had thought about his old man in his new life. It almost made him laugh that the fucker was less than a thousand kilometers away, and probably wanking off to some holo-porn while Coop dealt with this existential moment of crisis. Coop almost used his IOR to call the old man, but thought better. That was just a recipe for disaster.

Speaking with Eve’s dad wasn’t exactly an option. If the man had been married to the ADM, he was probably a hardcore bastard who’d peel Coop apart limb by limb for knocking up his baby girl. Unfortunately, some Blockie had done him in over a decade ago, so Coop didn’t even have that bad option to consider. His lack of a male role model was frustrating in moments like this.

It didn’t even occur to him until that very moment that he and Eve both had daddy issues, and that made him laugh. The sound startled a nurse walking by. He looked like a child compared to his enhanced bulk, which even outside his MOUNT, made the man look like a child in comparison. The nurse was about to snap something back, when he noticed the warrant officer stripes on his CMUs and decided to let it go.

That made Coop feel good. He had power now, <Then why do I feel so powerless?> he wondered as his mind snapped back to Eve and their baby in the other room.

As if on command the door slid open. “We’re ready for you, Mr. Cooper,” a doctor waved him in.

Coop took a deep breath, stood on legs that felt much weaker than they should, and followed the man into the room. Eve sat on the edge of an operating suite in one of those paper gowns that hospitals had been using for centuries. She looked tired, but happy, and he immediately saw why. Sitting in a large, see-through cylinder next to the surgical suite was a tiny human floating in liquid.

“You decided to tube it,” Coop let out a sigh of relief he didn’t know he’d been holding.

“I decided to tube her,” Eve corrected as she ran a hand over the cylinder with surprising tenderness.

<Her.> The word echoed in his mind. He had a daughter. He looked at the tube.

The human inside it was so small, but with his enhanced vision he could make out the thump of its little heart in its chest. As if knowing what he was cluing in on, the doctor tapped his PAD. A sound of a rapid heartbeat filled the room.

“It’s so fast,” Coop laughed as he watched his daughter twitch in the artificial womb.

Tubing, or Artificially Monitored Pregnancy as it was more formally known, had been around for almost two centuries. As time progressed, and mankind propelled itself into the far reaches of space, women just didn’t want to take the time, or suffer the physical and emotional tolls of being pregnant. As was human nature, technology was used to compensate. The result was the fetus spending nine months in a tube that mimicked the womb down to the mother’s DNA signature in the amniotic fluid. That was why Eve looked so tired. She’d spend the last few hours undergoing not only the extraction of the fetus, but the plethora of tests needed to simulate her womb for the unborn child.

“If we could,” the doctor’s voice yanked Coop’s eyes away from his kid. Eve nodded and a robotic arm descended from the ceiling to take the tube. The wall slid back to reveal hundreds of other tubes in their holding brackets. “Mr. Cooper, if you’d please step up to the scanner. We need to scan your GIC as the father.”

Coop’s body moved of its own accord. He scanned his GIC and the hospital’s AI added him to the system, while also matching his DNA to the baby’s. It beeped green with confirmation that he was indeed that little girl’s father. It also filled in the calendar function of his IOR with several upcoming appointments.

“We understand if parents can’t make it to all of the scheduled appointments, but we do ask that one tries to be present. We’ll start the first round of enhancement procedures at twelve weeks, and then move forward from there. I see you have additional selections beyond what the War Department’s insurance covers. We’ll need deposits up front before we do those procedures.”

“I’ve got some cash stashed away. Not a lot,” Coop imagined the pricetag on some of the simplest procedures ran five-or-six figures, “but you can have it.” The normally money-stingy Coop couldn’t help but laugh at himself after a second. “Look at that, the little bastard is already costing me money.”

Despite referring to their unborn daughter as a bastard, Eve just smiled back. “My family isn’t rich by any means, but we’re well off enough, and my name and family reputation can secure some loans. We’ll give our daughter the best head start we can.” Eve grabbed Coop’s hand and squeezed. “And if I haven’t said it yet…thank you.”

“Thank you?” Coop looked at her in surprise and couldn’t help but laugh again. “All I did was blow my load inside you when some scrub forgot to flick a switch and turn your birth control back on.”

Eve just grinned her mischievous smile. “Either way, even if this is going to fuck up my training schedule a little, we’ve been given a gift. A chance to be better than our own parents.”

“Did you tell your mom?”

“Did you tell your dad?” she shot back. “I didn’t think so,” she replied when he shook his head. “Plus, I’m sure she already knows. She’s the CNI, nothing gets through her intelligence-gathering nets.”

Coop heaved a sigh and bent down to give her a kiss. She accepted it hungrily, and several seconds later the doctor coughed uneasily.

“You will be on light duty for the next few days, but you should be cleared after the weekend,” the doctor informed as he entered commands on his PAD. I’ll see one of you at the next appointment.” He was almost out the door before he stopped and turned. “Ah,” he hesitated, “After the procedure there is a minimum for twenty-four hours without…penetration.” He flushed scarlet and left.

“Wow,” Coop chuckled. “Is it so hard to say don’t fuck for a day?”

“Not everyone has your supreme sense of decorum,” Eve grinned and swatted him playfully before hoping off the table.

“Yeah about that…” now it was Coop’s turn to hesitate. “Are we supposed to get married now?” he asked.

Eve just stared at him for a moment before laughing. She laughed so hard she winced in pain. “Oh…wow…that was perfect,” she took a moment to catch her breath, but couldn’t stop giggling. “It’s just how I’ve dreamed it ever since I was a little girl.”

Coop glowered at her sarcasm, but knew he deserved it.

“No, Cooper, this isn’t the eighteenth century. We’re not going to get married because you knocked me up. What you can do is buy me a drink? I haven’t been drinking because I’ve felt like shit and now, I know why.”

“A drink I can do.” Coop put the awkwardness behind him and extended his arm.

Eve took it, and they set out to find a bar.

<What great parents we’ll make,> Coop chuckled to himself.

 

***

 

ADM Sonya Berg

Location: Second Fleet Headquarters, Mars, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The PM was gone. Her ship had exited Mars’ atmosphere and reached the required distance from a gravitational body before portalling back to New Washington. The Commonwealth leader might be long gone, but there was no rest for the weary. Sonya didn’t spend a lot of time in the Sol System, so now that she was here, she needed to talk to everyone that needed talking to, bribing anyone that needed bribing, and needed to oversee at least the conclusions of half a dozen operations. Technology made all of that possible while sitting in a conference room at fleet headquarters.

She reviewed the latest data dump on her IOR. The space in front of her was transformed into a cramped PHA apartment. Normally, there would be nothing put sparse furnishings decorating the space. This time the place was filled with weapons, drugs, and money: the trifecta. The image was frozen just as one of her teams burst through the door. She didn’t need to play through the imagery again. A bunch of Rats in rags against trained soldiers in modern armor wasn’t a fight, it was a slaughter. She fast forwarded to the cleanup currently underway. The team moved with practiced efficiency. She highlighted a few things she wanted them to prioritize by hitting the air in front of her and her IOR transmitted the data to the team on Earth instantaneously. It was a hell of a management tool.

The man on the screen nodded and went to work on what she’d assigned. Most of the team was gathering up the drugs, money, and guns. The money wouldn’t go back to the Commonwealth. It would go into a special slush fund she could use for off the books operation. The drugs would be used for bribes, and the guns would be stored if some third-world uprising ever needed some clandestine Commonwealth support. Another raid just like this had netted the ONI a pretty penny, but she didn’t have more time to spend on it.

She scrolled with her eyes to another scene when something in the periphery caught her attention. A person was running in the hallway…then two…and finally someone with a decent amount of gold on their CMUs.

<That’s something,> she cut her link to Earth and got up.

Some of her staffers were waiting in the hallway for her to finish her confidential “meeting”, and their eyes were locked on the CAPT turning the corner at a sprint. They were all seasoned intelligence agents, but she knew them well enough to read that something was wrong.

“What?” she asked as armed personnel started to clatter through the other intersection.

“Word is we have hostiles inbound. We’re getting nothing but static, and Titan base has stopped responding.

Titan was the hub of Commonwealth power outside the asteroid belt. Nearly a billion people called the small moon and the surround space habitats home.

“If there was anything…” her statement was interrupted as a general alert pinged on her IOR and the lighting in the headquarters flickered to a dim red. “Never mind,” she was already moving toward the exits.

“Shouldn’t we go to command and control?” her staffers followed right behind her.

“No. Let the right people fight the battle. We need to gather the intel,” she was trying to connect her IOR with the ONI net on Titan, but all she got was an error message. That wasn’t good. The ONI had the next-gen tech installed at their facilities on the terraformed moon. “Get me eyes on Titan,” she commanded. “I don’t care it it’s a two hundred year old telescope. We need to know what is happening there.

Her staff was on it as they emerged from the headquarters and onto the adjacent landing strip. Loud claxons were blaring across the base and bringing its million-plus personnel to ready status. Before she knew it they were boarding her private shuttle. Flight control argued with the pilots until her codes were entered and her clearance overrode whatever no fly zone the alarm had instituted. They rocketed up through the atmosphere.

“Where to?” the pilot asked.

Sonya paused for a second and chewed her lower lip in an uncharacteristic show of worry. “Take us to Umbra.”

Her staff sat bolt upright at that. She’d just instructed the pilot to take them all to what amounted to a myth in the naval community. She gave the man coordinates from memory, and filed him away for one of two potential outcomes. Either she owned his ass for the rest of time, or he’d be eliminated once this was all over.

<No time to second guess,> she reminded herself as they flew away from established space lanes and toward the asteroid belt.

Instead, she focused on what the hell could be going on. Whatever it was, her gut said it wasn’t good.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 290

ADM Sonya Berg

Location: Second Fleet Headquarters, Mars, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “At ease. Keep your seats,” Prime Minister Deja Simmons looked more like the admiral she used to be than the political leader she was as she waved off the room of military, industrial, and political leaders. More important, she looked like a winner.

The victory at Harper’s Junction had been exactly what she wanted and what the Commonwealth needed. It cemented her victory over the Progressive Party in the recent elections, and it gave her the political capital, and all important, mandate of the people to push forward with her agenda. This was all stuff she desperately needed, and she was milking her victory tour for all it was worth.

Sonya took her seat near the middle of the table. Everyone who was anyone had been jockeying for position at this table since this meeting was announced and scheduled nearly a month ago. PM’s only came to Earth to placate the masses if PHA riots got too bad, or to tout a victory, so anyone who was anyone in humanity’s home system wanted to get in their two cents with the leader of the free galaxy. To avoid the unpleasantness of jockeying for position, the Chief of Naval Intelligence opted to sit below her station and watch those gathered to fawn over the new PM.

Chief among the ass kissers was Admiral Mitcham Duvall, Commander of First Fleet. Command of First Fleet was considered one of the highest honors in the entire Navy, but Sonya knew it was a ceremonial title for former big shots close to retirement. First Fleet hadn’t seen combat in multiple centuries, and was a bloated whale when it came to budgeting. None of that mattered when the Council of Representatives increased their funding annually without fail, and when actual combat-oriented fleets could use the extra cash.

<Nothing you can do about it,> she exhaled a calming breath as she looked over to Duvall’s left.

Admiral Janet Blackbird, commander of Second Fleet was right beside the older man. Second Fleet was Mars’ force, but unlike First Fleet, they still had squadrons and task forces that rotated out to the Mid-Worlds and Rim for deployment. It was still a black void of taxpayer’s dollars in Sonya’s opinion, but they at least partially earned their keep.

The Deputy Commanders of the two fleets assigned to the Sol System were in the next two seats, but only one of them was a new face to her.

{Welcome to the big leagues,} she shot the personal message over IOR to the man sitting four places away from the PM.

Admiral Johnathan Helms, Deputy Commander of First Fleet’s, eyes went unfocused as he scanned the message. A grin pulled at his lips before he smothered it. He was supposed to be looking stoic and professional in his new post as the number two to Duvall. Unlike Duvall, who Sonya had always thought was a bit of a condescending asshole because of an overrated part he’d played in a Blockie scuffle over seventy years ago, Helms was a proven commander who she’d worked with in the past. She was happy to see he’d finally gotten the corporate patronage necessary to jump all the way to full admiral. Judging by the way the man opposite the two first fleet commanders was sitting pretty, Sonya knew for sure he’d been the one to back Helms.

Thomas Gold was looking professional, but slightly distracted. When the PM had walked in, he made no effort to get up. Not only was he the man backing Duvall, and had elevated Helms, but he was the biggest contributor to Simmons’ election campaign and the Eagle Party in general. Everyone knew he was the real power in the room, but no one dared to mention it.

To show his power, he was sitting directly to the right of the PM, with the next five seats down being filled with his corporate lackeys, including the former CEO of the recently acquired Blacktide Armaments. On paper it looked like a merger, but Sonya knew a hostile takeover when she saw one. By her estimation, the Black Family would be completely knocked out of their own business in a decade or two, and if the rumors were true, their quest to marry into the Gold family had just taken a precipitous downturn.

The PM finally looked up from her PAD, which she’d been studying for the last thirty seconds in silence. The PM had the IOR implant like everyone else in the room, but it seemed she preferred the old reliable hardware in her hands. Sonya filed that away for future use.

“Ok, where are we standing with the Hegemony?” Once she had a firm grasp of this particular meeting’s agenda, they went to work.

“Everything is good, Madame Prime Minister. In fact, they’re better than good. All of our trading contracts are being met in full and on time. Loans are coming in without a hitch, as are the payments going out. We’ve been seemingly integrated into their banking system without a hiccup. It’s almost…”

“Alien?” the PM smirked and the room laughed. If this had been a human endeavor something would have gone wrong. Murphy would have demanded it. “How are things on the diplomatic front?” the PM turned to one of the holdovers from the last cabinet, Minister Jodi Harrington.

She had been moved out of her powerful position at Commerce and to the newly created Minister of Hegemonic Relations, whose primary mission as to conduct business with the Hegemony. It was a small position now, but Sonya had more than an inkling that it was going to grow quickly. “We’ve received return messages from our calls, but they read as courtesy replies. Whatever the more central races of the hegemony do on the day to day is still a mystery to us, and I don’t think they’re going to tell us anytime soon,” she replied looking more than a little frustrated.

“As long as the money keeps rolling in and our checks don’t bounce, we’re on a good path,” the PM moved on by fixing her attention on another subordinate.

Gold stayed silent, but his lackeys clearly had political IOUs they were calling in for legislation to be adopted by the Council. The PM handled it all like a good politician with smiles, non-committal language, and promises to get together with them individually at the earliest opportunity… which politely translated to never taking into consideration on her schedule.

Sonya didn’t pay much attention during these moments and elected to have her IOR record the meeting so she could look over it later. A message pinged in her peripherals, but it was a pre-programmed alert she’d set up to watch for items in her personal life. It was from a node with an Earth ID, so it was probably Derrick’s daily PT logs. His new legs were giving him trouble, and he liked to complain to her, so she made sure she had the therapist’s notes to reassure him with. She would tolerate it for a little longer before she pushed him back out of the proverbial nest so he could get back to flying.

“…Windsor’s look like?” she only caught the second half of the PM’s question, and she bought herself a few seconds to replay the whole question by tapping on her PAD and bringing up a holo of the galaxy.

“The situation with the Windsor’s is unchanged since their expulsion from Harper’s Junction.” ADM Ward wasn’t in the room, thank god, because it would have fed the man’s ego for him to hear her say that. “We have some light probing around the boarders they established after the unprovoked attack on Queensland and several other systems, but it looks like they are still licking their wounds. Our sources inside the Empire are limited, but they all are reporting that the Windsor’s are in a holding pattern.”

“What about the Blockies? Are they going to retaliate for Yangon?”

“Since Yangon was retaliation for Rogue Island, I would say it’s a fifty-fifty shot of something happening. We’re getting the usual bluster from their People’s Proxy Council, but there seems to be some infighting about next courses of action. I’d say we’re six months from seeing any operation take place, and that should be more than enough time for us to get new and updated hulls into service to counter anything.”

“Speaking of updating our warships. Have you given any thought to the request I sent forward about the fifteen percent quota?” Duvall stepped on the rest of Sonya’s report.

The fifteen percent quota was established by the combined military-industrial complex. It stated that they would get fifteen percent of each fleet updated with the new technology in order to have a minimum, modern fighting force available against any offensive action their enemies might take against the Commonwealth. With threats on multiple sides, this was quickly adopted by the Council and signed by the PM. The next phase of the plan was to get the frontline fleets further updated before the more static defense fleets, like First Fleet. Now, Duvall was trying to cut the line, and since his fifteen percent refit was about to be completed for the fleet it was the perfect moment to strike.

Unfortunately for Duvall, the PM knew this was coming. “We’ll talk offline about that. Mr. Gold, do you have anything to add?” she quickly pivoted to the one person in the room Duvall wasn’t going to interrupt.

“Only that we have the quantum sensor net installation progressing ahead of schedule. In another forty-five days you’ll be able to have a real-time data on ship positioning throughout the entire system without having to break it down into sectors like in the past.”

<That is good news,> Sonya nodded. The Commonwealth, and Fleet in particular, were paying a not-to-small fortune to get the next-gen net up in a few critical systems; enough that Gold Technologies was going too far surpass earning for this whole fiscal year. Even more important, it would give the Commonwealth a giant, strategic defensive advantage to use against any future attacks.

The various member systems’ independent astrogation agencies were going to levy new taxes on the shipping lanes to help recoup costs, but of course Gold had weaseled out of that too. In tandem with some of its recent shipping acquisitions, they were getting away with murder on their balance sheets. Sonya was more than a little worried with the amassed power Gold Technologies was wielding today versus two years ago, but that was a problem for a different time. The PM had moved on to another admiral, so she went back to her private inbox and opened the message from Derrick.

The problem was it wasn’t from Derrick. It was a medical alert she’d programmed her highest-level security AI to snatch. It was for Eve, and as she read it, it took all of her composure to not get up from the table, stomp out of the room, and catch a shuttle to Earth to chop a dick off.

<I’m going to murder that little fuck,> she seethed on the inside while she calmly tapped out a message to her daughter under the table and nodded along to the recap of some bullshit about fishery inventories on Titan.

 

***

 

Location: Deep Space near the Kuiper Belt, Sol System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Archibald Papadopoulos sat in the two-seater flight deck of the Lightening Bug Class freighter, It’s a New Day and watched the cargo hold cameras while his hands flew over the controls. He was well aware that the giant oblong piece of equipment, almost too big for his ship, was worth more than everything he owned, his life, his entire family’s lives, and if he fucked this up someone was going to collect on that debt.

<But the money was just too good to pass up,> he grinned as he fired the ship’s positioning thrusters to orient its bay door toward the designated coordinates.

As the owner and one of two employees of the independent freighter company Papadopoulos and Sons he’d been contracted to deliver this particular piece of equipment to the ass end of nowhere. He’d been contracted through the Ministry of War, but the piece of hardware had Gold Technologies insignias designed into it, so he knew who he was really working for.

He was only eligible for the job because of his service record and his spot in the Individual Ready Reserve. He’d made it all the way up to CPO before an unfortunate liberty incident on New Vegas got him an early discharge. It was still an honorable one though, so he had options…or at least he thought he did. Finding work after the navy was tough in Sol system. There were a lot of guys in the IRR looking for work, and going up against old friends for a handful of jobs had resulted in burned bridges. It would have been easy to land a high-paying gig in the outer Mid-Worlds or Rim, but he wasn’t willing to make the move or deal with the inherent dangers of that area. Plus, his whole family, and hot, young wife were all on Earth.

So into the family business he went. That was almost two decades ago. Now, it was his still hot, middle-aged ex-wife and him out in the ass end of nowhere in cramped quarters. Sometimes that was a good thing.

“Archie, you limp-dicked shit stain, keep your eye on your drift,” the woman in question snapped over the net as the ship floated off course by a few degrees.

<It wasn’t limp last night,> he mentally grumbled as he refocused on his task and made the small adjustment. Cramped quarters, a long time out in the void, and his ex-wife veracious sexual appetite led to the inevitable. Since it was the one thing they actually did good in their fifteen year marriage, he was fine with it at the time. Truthfully, it was one of the only reasons he could bare working with her anymore. Friends with occasional benefits was a lot better than sharing the cramped ship with some other dude with smelly feet for a month.

“Better,” she yelled back as they settled into the proper position. “Taking over remotely.” The Gold Technologies equipment hummed to life, and she, in an old exo-suit, started to maneuver it out of the bay and into space.

He tried not to think about why the hunk of electronics looked like it was covered in a moss-like substance, which shifted to looking like glass when it was exposed to vacuum. Those were questions he could never ask anyone. Whatever this thing was it was important, which was why he was being paid an entire year’s operating costs to haul it out here, plus a bonus when he returned.

“In position. Initiating uplink to Astro,” she announced as she hit the preloaded sequence. If it didn’t work, they were shit out of luck. The Ministry of War didn’t give a merchantman technical knowhow of sensitive systems. If this didn’t work, they’d have to haul it back and forfeit the bonus. It was working when they left, so if it didn’t when they got to the destination, it was Archie’s fault.

“Beacon Alpha-Seven, do you read. This is Sol Astrogation Control,” hailed an operator for the only joint agency–between all the world’s powers–that ran commercial traffic for the entire system.

“Roger, Astro, this is Beacon Alpha-Seven,” Archie sat back to wait for the message to travel at light speed to the monitoring facility in Titan’s atmosphere.

“Good copy, Alpha-Seven,” the voice replied immediately, which shocked Archie nearly out of his seat.

“Holy shit! Hey, get your saggy ass back in here Virginia, that’s one of those new quantum relay thingies,” he shouted over their private net. He was tempted to place a call all the way back to their shop on Earth but didn’t. The comms on these things were probably highly monitored at this point.

“Alpha-Seven, did you damage the package?” There was a new, graver voice on the speaker now.

“Negative, Astro,” Archie couldn’t help the hint of panic in his voice. “The package was in the container during all of transit, and I’ve got all the proper logs to show I didn’t do anything.”

There was silence for a moment. “We’re getting a bunch of glitchy readings to your aft. Please confirm.”

Archie had been so busy making sure he didn’t damage the cargo that he hadn’t been watching the sensors since they’d settled into position over half an hour ago. A Blockie fleet could have parked right on top of him.

<I should have sprung for better software,> he grumbled as his eyes shot to 2D screen that represented the quarter of a light minute surrounding Day.

Nothing.

He breathed a sigh of relief. “Astro, I’ve got nothing on my scope.”

“No offense, Alpha-Seven, but we’ve got your specs in front of us and your scope is shit. Requesting visual confirmation.”

Archie rolled his eyes. His ship’s capabilities ended right around fifteen thousand kilometers, but he should at least be able to get a fuzzy image of anything a stone’s throw away for the killjoys at Astro.

“Roger, give me a minute, Astro.” It would take a minute. While the sensors automatically did a seventy-five-thousand-kilometer bubble around Day, the visual telescope had to be moved into position. The coordinates he was getting – in real time, which was pretty awesome – were at his eight o’clock and plus forty-five degrees.

“Are you set?” he asked his ex, because to get the view he needed to adjust position.

“Yeah,” she grumbled back from the cargo-holds hardline. “Closing bay door.”

Twenty seconds later it was secure, atmosphere was flooding back into the majority of the ship, and he hit the thrusters. Day flew head over ass in a controlled tumble until the front of the boat was pointed at the anomalous readings. Next, he brought up the telescope and…

“Why are we…?” his wife yelled angrily from the top of the ladder at the back of the crew quarters when a beam hotter than the surface of the sun cut It’s a New Day directly in half. She tumbled out into space, dying in less than a minute, but not before she saw the front half of Day, with Archie frantically trying to reach her from the sealed bridge, explode.

Neither of them was close enough to see several not at all glitchy objects moving through the last vestiges of the Kuiper Belt toward the refineries on Neptune.

“Alpha-Seven, respond. Alpha-Seven…?” Astro continued to try to hail the quickly dispersing shreds of matter for half an hour before finally shooting the issue up the chain of command.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 287

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“It’s a wheel. This is not rocket science!” The MSG fumed on the already sweltering parade field. Coop didn’t know why they couldn’t do this in a nice air-conditioned hangar. Deep down he knew why. The MSG hated him and wanted their final day together to be a living hell.

<It’s hot enough for it,> Coop dropped out of the position of attention to wipe his brow.

“Cooper!” The MSG was on him like a fly on fresh shit. “Your military bearing is absolute shit. Why the powers that be want you to be the face of our Commonwealth is beyond me. You must have kissed the ass of someone high and mighty.”

This was a perfect chance to criticize or elude to sexual relations with the MSG’s mother, but Coop could see the light at the end of the tunnel. He just needed to get there as painlessly as possible. The second he graduated those black stripes would become official and the MSG could suck it.

“Move,” the MSG came over to push Coop out of the way. The little man couldn’t have budged Coop if he didn’t want to move, but Coop took a step away so the MSG could demonstrate.

Part of their graduation ceremony was marching around the parade field for spectators. It was all part of showing the flag, especially now after the defeat of the Windsor’s at Harper’s Junction. The PR machine was running at full speed, and they were just one of the cogs.

“Like this,” The MSG stood in Coop’s position at the far side of the squad, farthest from the squad leader. Normally, this position didn’t mean much, but for the formation to make a big wheel at the edges of the parade ground, it was the linchpin. “The Commonwealth issued you a brain, so use it.” The MSG executed the turn perfectly. Coop saw a number of his classmates stumble through it, but the MSG didn’t chew them out for it. This was all to make Coop look bad one last time.

They had another hour of this to suffer through, but that was it. The recruiting corps was a stickler about schedules, especially when it came to training, so all he had to do was endure. Once they were done they had a surprise inspection that wasn’t much of a surprise, and then were done for the day. All the NCOs were going out for drinks. Eve was going too, which was a little upsetting. He wanted to spend as much time with her as possible before they transferred up to the Proving Grounds.

The squadron assignments had been finalized before their weekend familiarization was concluded, and despite all his wishing, wheeling-and-dealing, and even praying, CMDR Snow had not put them together in the same squadron. Eve was in the 7th while Coop was in the 3rd. To make matters worse. The 7th through 10th squadrons were only doing half their training on Earth. They’d do their final phases on Mars where they would be headquartered for deployment. Coop had asked the perfectly logical question of why a battalion commander would want his forces split like that, but he got told to sit down and shut up about things above his paygrade. All of this meant that he had far less time with Eve than he thought, and he wanted to make every second of it count.

He was thinking of how he could just stumble upon the NCOs at the bar they were going to, and act like it was a total coincidence, when the MSG zeroed in on him again. “Cooper, Wildflower is at sick call for heat stroke. You’re going to take over his CQ duty tonight.”

CQ was short for charge of quarters, which meant Coop was being assigned to guard the entrance to the barracks that night. Like everyone else, Coop had filled his time on the roster, mostly on weekends thanks to the MSG’s ire.

<Really!> Coop didn’t bother to move his feet as they executed the wheel for the thousandth time. Everyone else kept going around him, but all eyes were on him. Mostly probably wondered if he was finally going to snap and rip the MSG’s head off.

The thought must have made the way through the MSG’s head because fear flared in his eyes. “What are you looking at Cooper? Focus on your drill and ceremony,” the man’s voice cracked, and that did it for Coop. The MSG was nothing more than a recruiter. His ribbons showed he hadn’t seen much, if any, combat, and he’d never been injured.

<He’s just a bully whose about to lose control.> Instead of inflicting a world of hurt on the smaller man, Coop just smiled at him and went back to being the linchpin for his squad’s wheel.

He kept his cool through all the nagging Camilla threw his way. Unlike Bill, who’d been assigned to 2nd Squadron, Camilla was going to be accompanying Coop into 3rd. That was a small bit of good news among all the bad. He found her hilarious.

“Hey, at least when I’m drunk and have my latest victim coming back to the barracks for a little fun you can clear me through,” she joked as she followed the rest of the enlisted personnel out the front door. Coop just waved them goodbye as the door’s hissed shut behind them.

This wasn’t the old training barracks used for new recruits. These were more modern, which meant sealed against the bad air that was everywhere on Earth. It was nowhere as bad as back in the PHA, but the infantry wasn’t about to put thousands of their investments in danger because of some CO2.

What it also allowed Coop to do was keep an eye on the monitor in front of him. CQ had long ago tapped it into the local networks so you could watch holo-shows and movies. It was against regs to make that network tap but no one cared. Everyone had been on the all-night watches before and knew how nice it was to have something to watch other than the door.

Coop was just settling into some comedy about a rich family who suddenly became poor, when the door hissed open. Coop glanced up and then jumped to his feet. “Barracks, atten-tion!” He called out to the emptiness. No one was there to comply with the order, but he had to do it anyway.

ADM Berg stood just inside the doorway and scrutinized everything. Coop continued to stand there at the position of attention.

“At ease,” she waved him off, and that was when he noticed there was nothing but static on the holo. She was jamming it somehow.

“Hello, Mr. Cooper. Congratulations are in order,” she stepped over to one of the chairs in the common room across from his CQ desk and gestured for him to join her.

“Congratulations?” Good coked an eyebrow. “It’s not like recruiting is hard.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate the pressure recruiters go through on the job,” she replied, “but that’s not what I’m talking about. Being a freshly minted Warrant Officer in a military wehre there are only a handful in existence is going to be a feather in your cap.”

<Of course she knows about the armored cavalry regiment,> recognition blossomed in his mind. It was quickly followed by an eureka moment and everything fell into place. The ADM just watched him with a small smile tugging at her lips.

“You wanted all of this to happen,” he started as his mind pieced everything together. “You wanted for me to join the recruiting class as cover for the cavalry gig. That’s why you signed off on it. Do you want me to fail so you can rub it in Eve’s face? Or do you want me to be better so I’m worthy of her?”

“Please, Mr. Cooper, the world doesn’t revolve around you,” she replied as she waved away his questions. “I want you in the new cavalry squadrons for my own selfish motivations.” Her statement took Coop by surprised, but he knew it shouldn’t. After all, she was the Chief of Naval Intelligence.

“Garrett is playing this whole ACR project close to his vest. Of course battalion and regimental staff will have S2s, but he’s been granted full authority to choose those soldiers. His putting his people into place to limit my reach. He wants the Commonwealth’s shiny new toy to answer to him and him alone.”

“Don’t we answer to the Prime Minister?” All Coop’s question got was a laugh.

“This is military politics. Don’t worry about it Warrant Officer,” she used his new rank, but it didn’t help his growing anxiety about how he’d been manipulated into this situation. “Your job is going to be to keep your eyes and ears open for me. I want to know the dealings of this new regiment. I want to know its successes and failures. I want to know your missions, what Garrett has you doing, and more importantly, how much influence Gold has on all of this. I know he was at the Proving Grounds with you for your introduction to the new tech, so every time he comes around I want a report on what he’s doing. I don’t trust that man.”

Coop wholeheartedly agreed with her on the last part. Gold was playing his own game. Even a former Rat could see that.

“What if I say no?” Coop couldn’t just do what she said. That wasn’t his style.

“Then I’ll give NCIS those damning records of your involvement with the people who committed the assassinations on New Savannah.” The casualness she used to speak about destroying his life was all the motivation he needed.

“I’m never going to live that down am I?” He asked, defeated.

“No,” her response was blunt and honest, “but you can do some good to make up for it.”

<Good for who?> was the real question.

Seeing that she’d won, she got back to her feet. “You’re going to need to work extra hard to earn everyone’s trust. Having me sign off on your packet has already raised eyebrows. Use your charm and wit to win them over.” She headed for the door. She stopped right before she hit to panel to leave. “I suggest you get back in touch with Lieutenant Commander Gold and offer your congratulations. It might be a good fact finding opportunity for you and a chance to get in close with the most powerful man in the Commonwealth. After all, Benjamin does owe you his life.”

<What?> He didn’t have time to voice his question before the doors were hissing closed behind her.

Thirty seconds later the static on the holo resolved back into the comedy show and it was like nothing had ever happened, which he was sure that was what the security logs would show. All this cloak and dagger stuff was already giving him a headache. He was a hammer. A blunt instrument. People pointed him at something and he destroyed it. He was not subtle, and had a feeling this wasn’t going to end well. Still, he pulled up the MILNET contact info and shot a message off to the LCDR. He didn’t know what he was congratulating the man for, but it seemed like the best course of action to do what the ADM said.

He hit send and waited to see what he’d got himself into.

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: New York City, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was used to keeping his emotions in check and his face neutral. He called it his command face. Even when he was scared shitless he couldn’t let it show for the sake of his men, or in his most recent case, his single female crewman. Although he and PO3 Lee had escaped from the Windsor patrols by the hair on their chinny-chin-chin, he hadn’t seen her since they took away Argo.

The last few months for one of the heirs to the Gold Empire had been a rollercoaster. He’d followed his orders to the letter at Harper’s Junction and provided the Fleet with critical intelligence that was used to defeat the Windsor’s and throw them out of the system. Even though his mission had been a success, the business at New Lancashire was a shadow over his career. RADM Nelson was being true to his word and making Ben’s life a living hell. The RADM was not generally favored with the high command of the fleet, but he had enough friends in the right places to make Ben bleed. He’d done that by taking Argo from him. Ben had fulfilled his command time aboard the gunboat, but that didn’t make losing her any easier. He’d done a lot on that ship, and he wasn’t soon going to forget it.

The plan had been all along to get his command time in and then enter the Diplomatic Corps. He had experience interacting with the Windsor’s before their betrayal, and he was one of the few people in the Commonwealth to be to one of the Hegemony’s systems. He didn’t have diplomatic duties, but he’d watched, learned, and had a solid letter of recommendation from the Minister about the crucial role he played at the time.

Of course, all of that meant nothing if you didn’t have friends in the right places. His application to the school for diplomats was rejected, and he was assigned a underwhelming position as an assistant operations department head about a battleship in the First Fleet. At the moment his new duty station, CWS Jack Frost, was undergoing a refit for the more modern technology, so his time was spent filling out paperwork, training his section in VR, and then filling out more paperwork. It was incredibly boring and tedious work, and with his career so far off the tracks from what he wanted, he considered hanging up his CMUs. He’d nearly served out his contract between his time in the Reserves and Active Duty, and if he wanted to, Jack Frost would be his last assignment.

<Now there is more to consider,> he grabbed the hand sitting next to him on the rich nano-leather upholstery and gave it a squeeze.

Jacobi had been looking out the window at the impressive skyline. He gave his hand a quick squeeze, a small smile, and turned her attention back to the view. He could tell she was nervous, and he didn’t blame her, he was a bit nervous himself. To reassure himself, he rubbed his thumb across the band of precious metal and stone on her left ring finger.

For one of the richest families in existence, the ring was fairly plain. The band was white gold with an infusion of nanites to ensure it lasted far longer than they did, and looked better than when it was made. The stone itself wasn’t perfect, but that was what made it real in Ben’s eyes. Technology could make a flawless diamond in seconds. All it needed was a piece of carbon, heat, and pressure. Ben wanted something real. Something that had taken form of millions of years in the heart of a planet. The stone itself was still top of the line: colorless, excellent cut, flawless up to 10x magnification, and three carats in total weight. He could have given her the diamond the size of her fist, but he wanted to pay for it out of his military pay, and wanted it to be reasonable. Something she could wear each and every day to remind her of him. A ten-plus carat stone wasn’t conducive to the life she wanted to live.

Those lives had changed together in the last month. He’d proposed, not at some fancy restaurant with the ring buried in some luxuriously-decadent piece of chocolate cake, but while on a three day pass at a hot dog vendor. All that mattered was the smile on her face and that she said yes.

Her tour of duty in the infantry was up, and she was on her way out. She was staying in the reserves, so she could keep all the enhancements to infantry gave her, but other than that her time in uniform was over. The next part of her life was just beginning. She’d been accepted to work in R&D for a Gold Technologies center on Earth and was taking advantage of their education’s benefit’s package. She would go to school to get her advanced degrees while working. She would owe time with the company for the investment they were putting in, but soon her last name was going to be Gold, so Ben was sure they would jump through hoops for his soon to be bride.

<But first we need to do some jumping,> he turned his own gaze to New York metropolis skyline and the top towers of the Upper City.

His family was waiting in one of those towers looking down over everything, and they knew nothing about any of this. He would be introducing Jacobi to them for the first time with the caveat that they were engaged and to be married in only a handful of months. He would need to provide interference against his mother and half-sister who would both want to throw the grandest wedding of the season despite Jacobi just wanting something small and intimate. He’d have to fend off his father and half-brother who would skillfully interrogate her to see if she was just trying to get into the family’s pocketbooks or if she really cared about Ben. The only one he wasn’t worried about was Hope. He’d even sent her a message before leaving orbit that they were coming and were engaged. She hadn’t responded, but Ben knew his full-blooded sister wouldn’t violate his privacy by telling them.

He could practically hear the doubts his father and brother would try and sow during the meeting. <It’s too quick…does she really care about you…is this only for money…you remember Sarah…>

Ben did remember Sarah and how she’d used him and his family’s influence to gain a command. He had no idea where she was, but he also knew Jacobi was nothing like her. They’d fought together. Bled together, and thought each other dead. During her confinement, the interrogators told her the ship that had brought her team to Harper’s Junction had been destroyed while trying to flee. Likewise, Ben knew she’d been captured and likely killed.

You truly know you love something, whether you knew it or not, when you learn it had been permanently taken from you. They’d shared those moments of sadness, fear, and longing with each other when they returned, and from there only one logical path remained. He’d bought the ring the next day, and now hear they were.

Ben shook his head to clear the memories as the air-car finally broke from the metropolis’ eternal traffic jam and climbed toward the penthouse apartments of the rich and famous. Jacobi’s grip tightened with every meter they climbed until Ben felt circulation being cut off.

“Don’t worry. They’re nothing compared to Windsor’s.” The comment was a little too soon, and he saw the hurt flicker in her eyes before she wiped it away with a small smile.

“Is it too much to ask that they like me?” she wondered more to herself than him.

<Maybe,> Ben didn’t voice his thoughts, and instead leaned over to kiss her cheek as the car slid into a parking position along the docking ramp leading from nothing but open sky to the balcony of the Gold’s city residence.

The last time Ben had been here he’d been about to set off on a great adventure to the stars. Now, the same thing could be said of another adventure. With only last break he steeled himself as Curtis, his father’s faithful bodyguard, opened the door for him.

“Welcome back, Mr. Gold,” his eyes took in Jacobi with the calculated sureness born of his days as a SEAL. “Miss Wentworth.”

That he knew her name wasn’t a good sign, but there was no use turning back now. Ben took her hand, helped her out of the vehicle, and walked ahead to get the door for her.

<It’s show time,> he fixed a smile to his face and entered the lion’s den.

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