Two Worlds – Chapter 223

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

It had been a week since the clandestine meeting with Hailey, and Coop hadn’t heard anything. The PAD just sat there silently. He would have been more than happy to sit back with a cold beer, turn on the holo, and try and get back on Eve or Aiko’s good sides, but Coop’s idea of a good time didn’t mesh with the SGM’s.  When Coop had returned from the meeting, the SGM hadn’t given him enough time to take a shit before being ordered to get into his PT uniform and assigned tasks to complete. Coop hadn’t cleaned his LACS after the exercise, and after a ten kilometer run, he spent the rest of his first day back on regular military duty picking pieces of moon dirt out of his LACS’ crevices.

Every day was like that. PT was followed by classroom exercises in their new equipment with the resident civilian engineers and Carol in attendance. The afternoon was more practical application of the hardware and software, either in VR, or on the system defense force’s ranges set up outside the city when available. Coop thought the SRRTs were supposed to be special, but since the anti-terrorism operation, they acted just like any other military unit Coop had ever been a part of.

“Everyone finish up. We’re on the truck in ten.” The SGM stuck his head into the small NCO chow hall.

Coop had no idea what truck he was referring to, but he knew where they were picked up for exercises, so he planned out the next ten minutes to ensure they would be there on time. He wanted to know what they were doing, but he didn’t bother looking it up. Eve would already have the training schedule up on her PAD, so there was no point wasting time when he could be eating.

“The schedule says we’re slated for inventory and technological familiarization,” Eve frowned at the screen in front of her before folding it up and putting it back in her CMU’s pocket.

Coop was pretty sure the SGM tried to make things as vague as possible just to fuck with them. He’d learned long ago not to get worked up about it. Instead, he shoveled the powdered eggs into his mouth and took a big gulp of coffee.

“Well we better get to it.” Coop rose and deposited his tray in the auto-cleaner before heading out. It was a short walk to the loading bay, and he was there a full three minutes early. Despite that, SSG Hightower and GYSGT Cunningham were already present and getting things squared away.

Coop fell into the front row of the small formation next to Eve. As the lowest man on the totem pole, he was to the far left. Usually, Mike would be standing behind him, but the big guy was still recovering from having his guts repaired.

With a minute to go the SGM appeared behind the wheel of a civilian van. He got out along with LCDR Gold, and LT Wentworth. The two officers walked to the back of the formation where they took their place. Aiko was also back there with the LCDR. As a spacer, she stood apart from the infantry formation. Coop would have turned around to talk to her earlier, but their relationship was still best described as frosty. Eve was warming back up to his presence, but the warmer Eve got the colder Aiko got, and vice versa. They were opposite ends of a weighted scale, and Coop was growing more convinced that he would have to work on repairing one relationship while ignoring the other. Either way, he feared for his personal safety.

<There’s no wrath like a woman scorned.> He wasn’t sure if he got the quote right, and didn’t really care. He just didn’t want to wake up one night with a knife in him, or something important missing. The woman who placed it would determine the target.

“Cooper!” The GYSGT snapped him out of his little trance. Everyone else was hoping in the van while he was still standing there.

“Just keeping you on your toes, Gunney.” Coop automatically replied back as he jumped into action. Because he’d been the last to move he got the honor of sitting up front with the Gunney.

He noticed the officers and Aiko weren’t present. That would normally prompt some questions from him, but one look at the GYSGT told him to keep his mouth shut. If anything, she looked a little nervous. Cunningham never looked nervous.

Squished next to the GYSGT would have been an uncomfortable ride, but they ended up not going far. Less than three kilometers later, they pulled to a stop in front of the base’s hospital. Coop’s o-shit-o-meter immediately spiked from curious to ‘what-the-fuck-is-going-on’ when he saw a dozen doctors waiting for them with poorly-concealed, eager looks on their faces.

When the doors to the van opened, the docs began calling out names like they were trying to herd a group of kindergarteners.

“Sergeant Cooper…Sergeant Mark Cooper! A pair of female doctors yelled from the periphery.

“That’s me.” Coop walked toward them and shouldered aside people in his path. That knocked a few of the other doctors to the ground, but he ignored their glares. Coop had been in the military long enough to know they were about to be given some sort of medical procedure. Knowing what he did about the SRRT, Coop did not have a warm and fuzzy feeling about whatever experiment they were about to conduct with some untested alien technology. Getting reassurances from a giant, floating tree that things were going to work did not fill him with confidence.

“Come with us,” they grabbed him by the hand and led him into a side door of the building.

Normally, two attractive women leading him somewhere would be cause for a celebration. Not this time. They descended several stories into what could be called the bowels of the facility where several clean rooms had been set up.

“Undress and put this on.” The doctors deposited him in front of a set of doors leading to one of the clean rooms. Coop was expecting some type of hospital gown to be the new uniform of the day, but instead they gave him what looked like a tight shower cap and nothing else. There were glowing data relays, processors, and sensor nodes on the cap, which further heightened Coop’s anxiety.

“So I’m just going to rock out with my junk out for this?” Coop yelled after the doctors as they retreated to some sort of command room. He never got a response, and doubted he would. If they were going to be uncomfortable with the all the nudity then that was just the flavor of the day. For whatever they were about to do to him, they could deal with him hanging brain.

With a sigh, he undressed and put the shower cap thingy on his head. There was nothing for a moment until the form-fitting material suctioned to his head. It was tight, but not unbearably so. The weirdest part was that the cap was slightly warm.

“Welcome, Ladies and Gentleman, to another exciting day in the advancement of mankind.” Thomas Gold’s voice announced over unseen speakers.

<This guy again.> Coop rolled his eyes and wondered who was really in control of this SRRT: the Commonwealth or Gold Technologies.

The corporate titan went on for a minute or so, but Coop didn’t pay attention, and only tuned back in when he said, “Thanks for all you are doing.” That seemed to be a cue, and one of the two doctors entered the clean room in a biohazard suit.

<Now I’ve got the warm and fuzzies.> Coop didn’t even try to flirt, and he looked at her hand with apprehension when she held it out.

“Sergeant Cooper, I’m going to need your consent for this part.”  The doctors produced a PAD. Coop looked at what was in her other hand and fought back a shiver.

Inside an injector, balanced in clear fluid, was a small seed. Unlike some, Coop knew exactly what the thing was. He’d seen one modeled to RADM Nelson back on New Lancashire before everything went to shit.

<Bioseed.> Coop cringed as he remembered what Bob had called it. It looked like a slimy sunflower seed, but was a medium brown color. It looked like a small, oozing poop nugget that was slowly diluting the clear fluid in the injector.

“I would like to introduce all of you to the Individualized Organic Router.” Thomas Gold stated with definitive pride.

Coop bit his lip but couldn’t help himself. “Why not just continue calling it a Bioseed?”

There was silence for a moment, and Coop could practically feel the SGM and GYSGT glaring at him from whatever clean room they were sitting naked in. One small blessing was that the windows were tinted for privacy.

“Focus group testing suggests that people are uncomfortable with the seed terminology. It makes them envision something growing inside of them. An IOR conjures more of a mechanical image that we’re accustomed to when dealing with technology.” Gold’s explanation sounded like part of a rehearsed sales pitch.

“But just to be clear,” Coop just couldn’t leave well enough alone. “It is still an organic seed that we’re about take, which will grow and intermingle with our brain to create the pathways to route and connect with alien information systems that we haven’t developed yet?”

“Correct.”

“Cool. As long as we’re all on the same page.” Coop flexed his left arm several times until the veins started to pop. Then he tapped it with his right hand’s middle and pointer finger. “Let’s go, Doc, shoot me up.”

“Sergeant Cooper has given consent to proceed.” The doctor said to the PAD for legal reasons.

She approached, pressed the injector against a throbbing vein, and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp, stabbing pain, but Coop ignored it. He’d had a leg crunched by massively increased gravity. This was nothing. What was worse was the feeling of blood pushing the seed along. It was small enough to be moved along in his enhanced veins, but just barely. Now Coop knew what it was like to have a blood clot.

He looked around and tried to see through his clean room partition and into the next one over. He imagined Eve sitting at the edge of her bed with her face screwed up in disgust.

“Cheers!” Coop yelled while pantomiming clinking glasses together in the window’s direction although no one but the doctors monitoring him could see or hear him.

His doctor came over and pushed his arm back down while monitoring his vitals. What Coop didn’t know was that he would be sitting there for the next thirty-six hours while the IOR made its way gradually to his brain. After that, he and the rest of the SRRT were put into a medically-induced coma to allow the IOR to reproduce more quickly and establish itself. Normally, this would happen more gradually while people slept, but the infantry didn’t have time to waste. There were things to do, people to kill, wars to win, and interstellar diplomacy to consider. The SRRT teams were needed fully operational yesterday, and no one was willing to wait for things to progress naturally.

Coop just had to embrace the suck and deal with it.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 208

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Doesn’t this place have fucking swatters?” Coop fumed.

Sunlight had already peaked over the horizon and two of New Savannah’s three moons had set. The temperature had already crept back up from slightly bearable, to an instant recipe for ass soup, and the lingering chaff in the air around the defense complex wasn’t helping.

“It does.” GYSGT Cunningham stood in front of him. “The S2 section is investigating to see why they were late to this party.”

Coop’s temper didn’t let up, if anything, it intensified. Only some of that had to do with the colossal clusterfuck that had occurred as all the VIPs exited the Gold’s shindig. A few of the VIPs ended up having a blast…literally.

“Those swatters should have been spun up and ready to go. For fuck’s sake, you can put the damn things on auto and just let them sit there to do their job!” For the millionth time, Coop had to resist the urge to scratch a new hole in his arm. One was enough at the moment.

A translucent gelcast, encasing a few liters of blue goo, covered his arm from shoulder to elbow. From what the rest of the team told him, the medics had stabilized him quickly once they arrived and transported him to the complex’s small hospital, which was overrun with much more seriously injured people. A doctor quickly fit him with the cast, poured in the nanite-rich solution, and kicked him out to make room for one of the VIPs whose legs had been crushed. That was fine with Coop. He didn’t want to be there anyway.

The one thing Coop regretted was not taking the drugs the doc offered him. He warned Coop that the itching and irritation of the nanites repairing his damaged tissue would be unpleasant, but Coop shrugged it off. He thought he could take it. Now…he felt like ripping the arm off and beating the swatter operators to death with it.

<If I was all doped up I wouldn’t be able to help catch who did this.> He reminded himself as he bit his tongue and settled with digging his fingernails into the tabletop.

“Intel didn’t know the New Savannah Liberation Movement had that type of ordinance.” SGM Queen announced as he walked into the room with a purposeful stride.

Everyone in the room hopped to their feet as LT Wentworth and LCDR Gold followed. Except for Coop. He just held up his gelcast as his excuse. The two officers didn’t seem like they cared, but the look on GYSGT’s face said she was going to rip him a new asshole when this was all over.

“This is the same intel section that is investigating the swatter fuck up?” Coop asked. “Sounds to me like our lovely S2 section is oh for two today. Maybe someone else should take over so they can get their shit together.”

“Stow it, Cooper.” SSG Hightower and the GYSGT snapped at the same time.

“No, that’s quite alright.” A third officer entered the room with a PAD in hand and LCDR stripes on her CMUs. She quickly waved the SRRT off before they could get to their feet. “As the sergeant so aptly put it, we fucked up.” As she tapped her PAD, screens began to spring to life around the room.

The screens looked like overhead satellite footage of the city. Coop could make out the general shape of the defense complex, along with the number of city parks within the city limits. Judging by the lighting, this was real-time data.

“Ma’am, this is my team. Team, this is ma’am. No other form of address is necessary.” The SGM made the introductions.

<Oh great. A spook.> Coop just couldn’t wait to see how this turned out.

“Good morning…at least for some of you.” Her eyes fell on Coop and his cast, and Coop couldn’t help but glare at the not-so-subtle dig. “It goes without saying that any and all information you receive today is classified.” She waited until getting a nod from everyone in the room before continuing. “New Savannah is a modern planet, with the full resources of the Commonwealth at its disposal. As such, we have an integrated human and signal intelligence network in place. It is standard operating procedure anywhere where we conduct R&D research for the fleet. The various corporations have their own intelligence apparatuses, and they’ve dutifully handed over any intelligence they’ve collected. The result is a comprehensive look at what occurred last night.”

The screens began to blur as they rewound from the live feed, passed a few bright flashes, and finally settled into what Coop assumed was occurring right before the attack. Coop was surprised they caught the whole thing on camera, but then he stopped and really thought about it, and wasn’t surprised at all. When something big ever went down in the PHA the cops always caught who did it. Now it made sense how. They were always watching.

“Gold Technologies scrubbed through their SIGINT of everything happening before and during the party, and found one call that raised a red flag.” The LCDR played a recording of a person, using voice-altering tech, negotiating fees for intel on air-car tracking. The speakers didn’t directly say what they were doing, but hindsight being twenty-twenty after the attack, everything fit.

“We might have caught it earlier, but the node this went through was processing millions of calls, and the speakers weren’t using any of the code words built into the algorithm, so we missed it.”

<Oh for three.> Coop wondered how the LCDR still had a job.

She fast forwarded the video until right before the attack and zoomed in on the area around the defense complex area. “The unknown speaker made their deal with the liberation movement, and they moved people into position here, here, here, and here under cammo netting to completely encircle the complex.” She highlighted a few nondescript locations in red. They looked just like the surrounding environment on the footage, which was what cammo netting was supposed to do.

Coop looked around the room, but no one looked like they were going to ask the obvious question, so he’d have to bite that bullet. “Where’d they get the cammo netting?”

“Stolen off a vehicle disabled in one of the voting booth bombings.” The LCDR answered without missing a beat and moved on.

She fast forwarded a little farther until the first blossom of a shoulder launched surface-to-air missile sprang to life on the holo. “From what we retrieved from the launch sites, we confirmed they were firing Javelin X’s.” A schematic of the weapons system sprang to life in front of them.

HI school had Coop memorizing a lot of different weapons systems. The Javelin X’s had been one of them, and all the stats came flooding back to him. It was an older weapons system, but a favorite of anyone who couldn’t get modern military tech. Its genius lay in its guidance system. It was the first surface-to-air system developed that allowed the firer to target anti-grav waves, which made it great for shooting down anything flying without old-school fuel thrusters. It also had IR targeting, so it could shoot down those with fuel thrusters, and a line of sight option. Weapons had grown a whole lot smarter in the hundred and fifty years since the Javelin X’s production ended, but the Commonwealth had made a lot of the weapons, and many of them had ended up in the wrong hands.

It had a maximum range of thirty kilometers, and a highly explosive warhead that would punch a hole in a Spyder if it was able to hit one. Judging by the short distance the rocket teams fired from, shooting those air cars was like shooting fish in a barrel. Coop had never seen fish in a barrel, but he assumed they were easy to kill.

Coop watched the holos continue playing. The rebels waited until a good number of air-cars were mobile before rapid firing. That was the other beauty of the Javelin X. The multiple payload missiles. A single warhead fired from the launcher, but once it locked onto its target and got within a certain distance, the warhead threw out ten smaller missiles, thus the roman numeral X in the name. The manufacturers of the original design knew it was a constant arms race to keep up with the latest defensive tech, so once the enemy figured out a way to spoof the Javelin X’s systems, the manufacturers wanted to have a backup. That backup was quantity. Point defense, a swatter, or one hell of a pilot was what you needed to get away from those missiles, and judging by what Coop saw on the holos, a lot of the VIPs didn’t have that.

“The liberation movement was smart about it. This was their golden opportunity for a decapitation strike on the planetary government and fleet personnel. They made it count, and they pulled out all the stops.”

Coop watched as an air-car expertly avoided a missile by executing a ninety-degree turn around a building that must have taxed the internal dampeners to the breaking point. Unfortunately, the missile computed that it couldn’t make the same turn and detonated once it cleared the building. The blast didn’t destroy the air-car, but it caused enough damage to the engines that an emergency landing was required, and judging by the video, at least one person was injured.”

The LCDR zoomed back out to the bigger picture where the air-cars were employing their defensive countermeasures. Those countermeasures were fairly effective despite the quantity of threats they had to deal with. Still, Coop saw several air-cars go down as fiery wrecks. He didn’t see the SRRT running for cover on the holos, but he saw the cloud of chaff covering most of the defense complex.

“Casualties?” Lt Wentworth asked.

“As of when I walked in here…fourteen, including the planetary governor, Admiral Danvers with most of his staff, Savannah City’s police commissioner, and several other local politicians and business leaders.”

“Sounds like they completed their mission.” Coop didn’t mean to say it too loud, but everyone in the room picked it up. “I’m just saying…they went for a decapitation strike, and they killed the planet’s political and military leaders. I’d be worried about local defense force ships coming under enemy control now.” Coop’s eyes looked upward. He’d never seen orbital bombardments, and he was eternally grateful for that.

“There were a few scuffles on a few ships,” the LCDR spook answered. “But it doesn’t look like the movement was able to penetrate the crews well. The cops and soldiers on the ground are a different story. We’re already receiving reports that towns, cities, and even an entire province in one case are declaring independence from the Commonwealth.”

“That’s for the local defense forces to handle.” The SGM stepped forward to retake control of the conversation. “What this whole shitstorm gives our team is a golden training opportunity. Lieutenant Commander.” He waved for the officer to continue to play the footage.

After the rocket teams rapid fired their payloads, they scattered. Spyders on alert five, were in the air within a minute and hunting them down. Three of the four teams found themselves on the business end of an air-to-surface missile or a 35mm cannon with explosive shells. However, the fourth team made it to a nearby road, and into a vehicle that hauled ass toward the city despite several occasions when a nearby Spyder could have lit them up.

“Cooper, what did I say our mission parameters as a Splitstream Rapid Response Team were?” The SGM turned on Coop.

“Uh…” Coop quickly searched his memory, “isn’t it sabotage, covert insertion, reconnaissance, and target elimination.”

“Are you asking me a question or is that your answer, Cooper?” The SGM just stood there waiting.

“That’s my answer, Sergeant Major.”

<If I’m wrong, at least I’m answering wrong with confidence.> Coop mentally shrugged and waited to get chewed out.

“Correct.” The SGM turned back to the rest of the team. “We’re going to study this intel, execute a covert insertion, recon the objective, or objectives, and when given the green light, eliminate the targets. Questions?”

Coop had an unrelated question, but he didn’t raise his hand. Everyone in the room looked like they were ready for some payback, and no one wanted to hear him ask where the nearest bathroom was. Getting the guys who’d successfully destabilized the local political and military landscape was a lot more important than the shit Coop needed to take.

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Bonus Chapter – Two Worlds – Chapter 207

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The party went on for several more hours, which was kind of a pain in the ass for Coop. After his fight with Eve, he expected to be able to storm back to his barracks and not see her again for the rest of the night. He got as far as the front door before getting a message from Cunningham to get his ass back to the table. He practically chucked the empty tiramisu bowl at a server on his way back.

After dinner and dessert, the guests broke up into groups for after dinner drinks. Waiters walked around with real-wood boxes of fine cigars from Earth’s tropics, which despite several hundred settled worlds, was still the best place to grow tobacco. With medical technology being what it was, the rich people here could indulge in all the vices they wanted to and suffered no side effects.

<Meanwhile, a guy in the PHA gets lung cancer at thirty and can’t afford the treatment.> Coop was very quickly losing patience with the people around him, and their sudden interest in the soldiers in uniform wasn’t helping.

“What’s this mean?” an attractive woman, who could have been thirty or ninety, due to the blue in her eyes, slurred as she poked Coop hard in the chest.

“That’s my marksmanship badge,” Coop replied, looking for a way out of the conversation.

“What’s that mean?” the woman repeated.

“It’s an Expert Badge, which shows I’m a really good shot.”

“Wow…like against people…” the woman’s eyes went wide, and Coop bit his lip instead of replying. “What’s that?” She moved up and poked at a ribbon.

“That’s my bronze star.” Coop thought he’d found a way out of this conversation.

“What’s that for?”

“I killed a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Coop’s attention wasn’t on the conversation anymore.

“What?”

“Nothing… I don’t want to be part of this conversation anymore, so I’m going to go over there.” Coop pointed at a spot away from the woman and quickly walked away, leaving her with her mouth open, and not knowing what to do.

“Aiko,” he called out to the woman as she conversed with several older gentlemen.

“Sergeant Cooper.” Her tone and expression showed how uninterested she was in talking with him.

“Petty Officer Lee.” He made the wrong move and mocked her.

<Idiot.> He nearly smacked his hand against his forehead as she turned away from him and back to her gaggle of admirers.

A few women saw him free of a conversation partner, and started to move on him. It didn’t seem to matter to them that they were married to some of the most powerful people in the system. They were drawn to his good looks and uniform like moths to a flame.

Coop knew he was never getting married, because in a world with longevity treatments, marriage, until death do us part, could be a long fucking time. He would bet his monthly paycheck that these men and women at the party had gotten married young, had seven or eight decades together, and were now bored out of their minds. Variety was the spice of life, and they either kept things spicy, or let it fall apart. Their status wouldn’t let them divorce, and suffer that shame, so they figured out other ways to make it work.

He was not going to be a part of those games, so Coop headed for the bathroom with all due haste. It wasn’t empty, but no one in the small room conversed with each other. Guys didn’t do that. So, he took the opportunity to splash some water on his face, and hopefully wait out the women trying to engage him in conversation.

He did that for hours. Sometimes he was successful. Other times he was not. The women he was trying to avoid seemed to find it a fun game to chase him around, and when they caught him, he had to endure the same awkward military-themed conversation from people who had no idea what they were talking about, on a topic he didn’t really give two shits about. By the time things wrapped up, all he wanted to do was collapse into his bed and sleep through the weekend. The healthy buzz from the expensive cognac only helped take the edge off.

“Everyone on me.” The SGM waved them over as people started to funnel out. “Cooper, are you drunk?”

“No, Sergeant Major.” Coop shook his head.

“How about we do some PT and find out?” the NCOIC offered.

“Naw, I’m good.” Coop’s answer indicated he was a little tipsy.

“Tomorrow we’re going to start our training.” The SGM ignored Coop’s remark, although Coop knew he wouldn’t forget it. “We’ll form up at zero-five-hundred here.”

Coop’s PAD pinged with an email that held a location on the far side of the complex. He wanted to complain about it being the weekend, but he had a feeling the SGM didn’t give a shit. Coop didn’t think he’d have a lot of free time coming up.

Coop and the rest of the soldiers were standing in the open space in front of the defense complex’s central building. The party guests were filtering out to the front gate, where the valets were working double time to get their vehicles out to them as quickly as possible. Nothing was worse than a rich person having to wait for something, and the valets’ tips depended on it, so they sprinted to get it done. Coop saw the LCDR walking with his father, and the hottie, out with some of the bigger VIPs to see them off. Thankfully, he didn’t have to worry about any of that chaos, because he was heading in the opposite direction.

People were shaking hands and getting in air-cars as Coop turned to walk away. He made it about a hundred meters, and a few thoughts on how to remedy the clusterfuck between him, Eve, and Aiko, when the base alarm started screaming.

He instinctually moved to find cover, which wasn’t much in the open space between the buildings. He crouched, behind a too-small waste dispenser, and turned back toward the front gate.

A lot of people left the party via the main road in front of the complex. There was a no fly zone around the area, so they had to drive a little farther away before going airborne. The exception to that rule was the VIPs. Due to security precautions, they went airborne right away, and took randomized routes back to their destination. That probably wasn’t business as usual, but after the recent attacks, it made sense to implement.

Coop looked for the source of the alarm. His alcohol-addled vision sharpened as his body went into fight or flight mode. <There.> His eyes focused and clearly tracked the contrails of inbound surface-to-air missiles.

The air-cars took evasive action. EW flairs shot from the cars’ undersides to confuse the missiles, while chaff canisters deployed and exploded in a shower of burning, blinding brilliance. Unfortunately, one of those canisters exploded right above Coop’s position.

“Motherfucker!” Coop threw his arms over his head and sprinted for better cover. The stuff in those canisters was designed to burn in space, underwater, or wherever else it was supposed to spoof enemy targeting systems.

It looked like burning snow was falling all around him. He felt some impact his CMUs and immediately begin to burn through the smart-cloth. He joined the rest of the SSRT as they sprinted under cover of a nearby building.

“Get it off!” Eve yelled as her hands clawed at the fabric. The self-adhering smart-cloth worked against them now, but two people yanking Coop’s clothes off got the job done. It still wasn’t fast enough.

“FUCK!” Coop’s legs buckled as a small bit of chaff got through his CMUs, and into his bicep. It would continue to burn until it consumed all of its fuel, which at the moment was Coop’s body.

“Hold him down!” Eve yelled.

Rough hands grabbed Coop. One set wrapped around his torso to keep him from thrashing, another controlled his head and shoulders, and lastly, one pair was specifically for keeping his arm pinned.

Spots exploded in Coop’s vision as the pain grew and he felt like he couldn’t breathe. He didn’t even see Eve whip out a knife and stab it into his arm. It was just one of the many sources of agony. He didn’t even watch as she cut away at his flesh like he was a steak at the butcher’s shop. The whole impromptu procedure took less than thirty seconds, but it left a blackened hunk of flesh in its wake, and a half-unconscious Coop.

While Cunningham, the SGM, and Mike held down Coop. Aiko kept an eye on what was happening outside. They were all unarmed and sitting ducks if things got even more fucked up, but she couldn’t miss what was happening. The world in view continued to burn, but it wasn’t the only thing. Fires raged outside the front gate, either from cars on the road that had been hit, or a crashed air-car. Aiko caught sight of one air-car spinning out of control and slam into the defense complex hard. A second seemed to be making an emergency landing with a large chunk of its back half being blown off. A third raced through the air, closely followed by another missile, but it was an air-car, not a Spyder, and its countermeasures seemed to be expended. The attempt to outrun the missile failed. The explosive struck the vehicle from behind, set off a cascading failure, and the whole vehicle turned into a giant fireball the spewed shrapnel everywhere.

A huge piece of flaming metal imbedded itself into the building less than two meters from Aiko’s position, so she wisely ducked back inside the foyer, where chunks of Coop’s flesh lay discarded on the polished polyplast floor. The receptionist at the desk on the far side of the lobby looked like she was about to faint.

“Don’t just fucking sit there!” Aiko screamed. “Call the medics. Let them know that their weekend just went to shit!”

It took a moment for the receptionist to snap to, but when she did she was on the phone calling everyone.

“Hell of a party,” Coop grumbled as the SGM stuck an injection in Coop’s arm just below the shoulder. The relief was immediate. “Yeah…that’s the stuff.”

He faded into unconsciousness before the medics arrived.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 206

Benjamin Gold

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The head of the long table was the place to be, but Ben wanted to be anywhere else. The elite of New Savannah sat around him, talking like a group of old friends, and discussing items trivially that affected the lives of millions of people. As a ship’s captain, Ben was used to making critical decisions that affected others, but he’d never heard it discussed so… nonchalantly.

“Labor contracts are wrapping up.” A bald man with sharp brown eyes was saying at his spot across for Ben and two chairs down. Since modern technology had eliminated baldness, the man’s lack of hair was a choice, not biologically predetermined. “We were able to talk down cost of living increases, but we had to give extra vacation days.”

“Readiness is at an all-time high,” the man directly across from Ben, in a black uniform with red trim, stated to the man sitting between him and Thomas Gold.

Thomas was politely listening, but Ben could tell his father’s situational awareness was finely tuned to everything around him. “Military strategy isn’t much of my forte, gentlemen. My son would know more about that.” Thomas passed the conversation off to Ben, who suddenly found himself staring at two of the most powerful men in the system. “Ben, you’ve met New Savannah’s Governor, The Honorable John Willoughby, and the head of the New Savannah militia, Admiral Mark Danvers.”

“I haven’t had the pleasure yet.” Ben nodded respectfully to both men, because reaching across the table to shake hands was bad etiquette.

“We prefer system defense force to militia, Mr. Gold,” ADM Danvers replied as he returned Ben’s nod. “Militia sounds like a junior league collection of weekend warriors. The New Savannah System Defense Force (NSSDF) has an infantry component of two hundred and fifty thousand men, and a fleet service of twice that split between a squadron of battleships, two cruiser squadrons, and a flotilla of destroyers and gunboats to help with commerce protection.”

The ADM was clearly proud of his spacers and soldiers, and he should be. Ben hadn’t seen a lot of defense forces in person, but he’d read statistics, and had access to the readiness reports like any other ship’s captain. The NSSDF was one of the better ones in the Core Worlds. Too many of the planets close to Earth or New Washington, especially when they weren’t near Blockie space, thought they were untouchable, and let their security lapse with the hopes that the Commonwealth Fleet would pick up the slack. Despite the fleet’s massive tonnage, and always growing number of ships, the galaxy was infinitely bigger. The Fleet wouldn’t be everywhere at once, and with the current war on two fronts, that was truer than ever. Some systems were finally starting to see that, and were quickly trying to arm themselves, but it wasn’t that easy. It took time to properly train soldiers and spacers, and even more to get a ship’s crew to gel and be effective in combat.

On the bright side, many soldiers and spacers who were looking at getting out of the Commonwealth Fleet, and were looking for something more stable, were finding a lot of work to pick up their former occupations in service to a single system. In several of those instances as well, corporations were stepping in to pick up the slack. Cue, the woman sitting next to Ben.

“New Savannah has a top of the line defense force, Admiral, and Blacktide greatly values the cross training opportunities we’ve had between our ships, but I for one have been dying to talk to the Hero of New Lancashire.”

Ben was thankful that the other dinner conversations covered the groan that escaped his lips, but RADM Stillwater’s scoff and eye roll weren’t as subtle.

“I’m no hero.” Ben waved off the praise.

“Of course you are,” Vanessa pushed. “Because of your actions seventy five thousand people were extracted off New Lancashire before the Windsor’s Fleet took the planet. I’d say that is pretty heroic.”

“Yeah right,” this time the RADM’s scowl wasn’t even slightly hidden. His thoughts on Ben’s actions were loud and clear.

“Still,” Ben had to stop from glaring at the RADM, “I was just doing my job. I had information, and had witnessed firsthand, what the enemy was capable of. I passed that information along to my commander, and allowed them to make the decisions regarding Fleet actions. However, with that knowledge, I was not going to allow the corporate assets I did have authority over to be destroyed. My orders to Gold’s Carrier Group was to help the people I knew were going to need help, and even with that assistance, we still didn’t get everyone out.”

“Regardless,” ADM Danvers waved away Ben’s modesty, “I’ve seen those sensor recordings, and I’ve been privy to after action reports of the Windsor’s more recent raids. You did the right thing Lieutenant Commander.”

“Thank you, sir.” Despite himself, Ben smiled.

<Maybe there’s a slot for me in the NSSDF if I get the boot from the Fleet and don’t want to go corporate quite yet.>

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and people love to Monday morning quarterback split second decisions.” Thomas reentered the conversation. “But I happen to know for a fact that people are starting to come around to the fact that you did the right thing, and I’m sure they’ll want you to continue to be involved in actions against the Kingdom of Windsor, since you have some of the most experience dealing with them diplomatically and militarily.” Thomas Gold said it all while casually taking bites of his main entree, but to Ben, it was a wild departure from the norm.

Since before Ben could remember, his father had wanted him in the business, not serving in the fleet. There was a reason that had changed, and the reason would have something to do with the benefit of Gold Technologies and the Gold family.

“Personally, I think what you did was very brave.” Vanessa threw in her two cents, but Ben was so preoccupied trying to figure out his father’s motive, he nearly missed her hand settling on his thigh. The key word was almost. Ben was distracted, not dead.

“Oh…ummm…” Ben nearly choked on his drink, coughed repeatedly, and successfully splattered bourbon down the front of his CMUs. “Shit.” He cursed under his breath, but it gave him an excuse to get up. “Excuse me gentlemen.”

Ben knew it was rude, but he got out of there as quickly as possible. First, to the restroom for a nano-spray that would easily remove the alcohol, and second, down to the opposite end of the table.

“How’s everyone doing?” He asked the rest of the SRRT team.

Jacobi shot him a look that said they needed to talk later. Ben had no idea if she’d been watching him or not, or if she’d seen Vanessa make a move, but he could feel it was going to be an interesting conversation. It wasn’t every day that a person met their idol, got a private dinner with them where they showed interest, and then the very next day got a pointed reminder that she was of a junior class, and got shuffled down to the end of the table while Ben got paired with a much more suitable, potential partner. Ben was not looking forward to that conversation.

“Excellent, sir.” The SGM smiled a little brighter due to the open bar.

“The food is excellent, sir.” The GYSGT seemed to be keeping pace with the NCOIC.

“Great, sir.” The SSG and SGT Sullivan didn’t have the rank to feel comfortable drinking more than one drink, so they were busy keeping an eye on the new junior NCOs.

“It’s been a great opportunity, sir.” SGT Berg’s smile was strained.

“Uh.” Cooper grumbled, while SGT Enders gave Ben a thumbs up, and Aiko just shrugged.

Ben shot the SGM a pointed glance concerning the junior NCOs, and despite the man’s situation, he got the message. Ben left the group of soldiers and sailors in the capable hands of the senior NCOs, while he went back to the head of the table. He still hadn’t talked to the Police Commissioner, the Lieutenant Governor, the party leaders in the planetary government’s legislature, or a slew of other important people. Ben made sure to fix a smile to his face when he returned, while at the same time directing it away from Vanessa. He didn’t want her getting any wrong ideas.

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop followed the GYSGT and Eve out into the hallway. There was constant traffic with the wait staff, but no other guests were present. It was the perfect place for Cunningham to chew their asses out.

“What the hell is going on between you two?” The NCO cut to the chase.

“Nothing, Gunney.” Eve stated before Coop could open his mouth.

“Don’t blow smoke up my ass, Berg. Everyone can see something is up. Even the Lieutenant Commander saw it in the five seconds he spent with us. Now spit it out. What’s going on?”

“Sergeant Berg is being a bit of a bitch, Gunney.” Coop took his filter off.

Despite himself, Coop braced for either the Gunney or Berg to take a swing at him. Neither did, but Eve looked mad enough to.

“Berg?” Cunningham turned to Eve.

“Nothing, Gunney, just frustrated is all.” Eve looked like she was chewing nails, but held her tongue.

Coop didn’t have that talent. “Bullshit,” he called her out. “You were just laying into me about not deserving anything and putting me down. I’ve had to deal with my own shit, it might not be ranger-level shit, but I’ve had to survive, and I don’t need you shitting on me for what I’ve done since Basic.”

“Cooper, do you think you deserve to be a sergeant?” The GYSGT calmly asked the question.

“Well…” Coop pondered.

“You most certainly do not.” She finished for him. “Neither of you do. Neither of you have the time in grade requirements. Neither of you have attended the NCO academy. Neither of you know what it means to be an NCO. So, Cooper, if she’s giving you a hard time about it, it’s because she’s right. Both of you should still be enlisted.”

Eve looked vindicated for about half a second until the Gunney turned on her. “Now, for your shitty attitude, Berg. Sometimes you get shit details handed to you that you don’t like. This is not one of them. You don’t deserve to be a sergeant, but you are. There is no taking that back. You’re an NCO with a great opportunity, so embrace it. Get the experience, get the knowledge, and when you finally get to the NCO Academy you crush it. You too, Cooper. Learn from all of this. The Sergeant Major is a fucking legend, and I’ve got a few life lessons to impart myself. So soak it up like a sponge, and don’t jerk off or make excuses that will get us all killed. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Gunney.” Their reply was just short of a shout.

“Good. Now you two hash things out quickly and get back to your seats. I’m pretty sure there will be rounds of toasts to everyone and their mother coming up.” The GYSGT executed a tight about-face and strode back into the ballroom.

Eve and Coop just stared at each other for a moment. “So…” Coop broke awkward the silence. “You don’t like Aiko.”

“I don’t have any problem with Petty Officer Lee.” Eve shot back. “My problem is with you, Coop. I don’t care what you stick your dick in. I care about how reliable you are.”

“That’s not what it looks like to me. It looks like you’re jealous that I hooked up with her once upon a time, and now you’re that one that’s being unprofessional.”

“Unprofessional,” Eve hissed, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. “Like you traipsing off to shady bars with her.”

That stopped Coop clear in his tracks, and he was pretty sure he went an unhealthy shade of white at the same time. “How…?”

“Just get your shit together, Coop. You’re on an elite team now. We all need to trust you, and one of the two people flying us around. Don’t jeopardize that, or any of us, that’s my biggest problem with you.” She stopped and the two of them locked eyes. “And… maybe I think you can do better.” She said the last bit in a rush and hurried back into the ballroom.

That left Coop alone in the hallway while waiters flowed by with the evening’s dessert. He swiped a tiramisu off a passed woman’s tray, much to her distaste, but he didn’t care.

<What the hell just happened?> Coop’s mind spun as he tried to figure everything out. <Mmm that’s good.> He contemplated as he tried to figure out how Eve knew he’d gone with Aiko to the bar in the first place.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 205

Noah Grisham

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The parking attendant sprinted across the lot. His PAD showed him exactly where the car he was supposed to retrieve was parked, but there was a sea of sleek luxury models between the young man and his goal. He needed to move fast enough that the wealthy people whose leg work he was doing would tip well, but not fast enough that he got his uniform all wrinkled. The rich people also wouldn’t tip well if he looked like a slob.

<Do you want your car fast or not?  Make up your mind!> he fumed. It had been a frustrating night.

This whole job was very last minute. Some corporate big wig had rolled into town and wanted to throw a big party for Election Day. Naturally, that meant that every party planning business in the city immediately jumped and bent over backwards. The realization that it was at the defense complex made it trickier due to security, but that just meant an incentive bonus for anyone who had the clearance to work. The attendant had spent two years in the local defense fleet as an enlisted spacer. That meant he spent two years cruising around on patrols watching for pirates and Blockie invasions. He’d never seen either, but it helped him save up money for the Associates Degree he was working on, and got him some tuition aid options that weren’t available to everyone else. He just did jobs like the parking attendant gig to have some spending cash.

“Bingo.” He found what he was looking for, a sleek, luxury model air-car, which was hovering off the ground even in park mode.

The car accepted his GIC as a temporary user and slid open the door. The attendant couldn’t help but sigh as he sank into the driver’s seat. The nano-fabric conformed to his body, while the environmental systems measured his biometrics and adjusted the cabin to what his body found most pleasant. He wanted to sit there for a little while, but each second he dawdled was a few bucks off his tip, so he put it in reverse and back up.

THUMP

“What the hell?” The attendant quickly pulled forward and looked in the rear-view camera to see an unmoving body behind him. “Shit!” He quickly jumped out, completely ignored the fact that the collision detection sensors should have alerted him to someone behind the vehicle, and auto braked to avoid such an accident.

“Buddy, are you…” the question ended as something sharp moved into place just below his Adam’s apple, and pressed against his skin just enough to draw a trickle of blood.

“Don’t make a sound,” a cold, hard voice, whispered down at him.

The attendant didn’t need to look behind him to feel that the guy was tall and broad. The man who stepped in front of him was not.

“What’s going on here?” The short, slender man asked.

“I’m grabbing someone’s car,” the attendant practically pleaded.

“Not what are you doing. What is going on here?” The man repeated while gesturing at all the cars and over his shoulder at the defense complex.

“It’s some fancy party some rich guy is throwing. Please…I don’t know anymore. I just park cars.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.” The short guy gave a nod to the big guy, and for a merciful second, the attendant thought he was free.

Then the big man dug the knife into his throat, and easily sawed through skin, arteries, and into his windpipe with a single slice. The attendant gave a death-gurgle as his hands shot up to stop the bleeding, but it was already too late. He’d be dead in under a minute.

Able tossed him to the ground like yesterday’s mail and made sure to stash him between some cars.

“Smitty, get your cantankerous ass over here!” Able barked, eliciting a raised eyebrow from Noah for the use of the word ‘cantankerous’.

Smitty was a new edition to the crew. He always had a frown on his face, and looked pissed off at the world in general. What the other pirate did have going for him was that he cleaned up well.

“Take his clothes and go play car parker.” Able ordered as he tossed a nano-solution to remove the blood from the white shirt, black vest, and black pants. The smart-cloth would readjust to Smitty’s size without prompting.

As Smitty stripped down and changed, Able approached Noah. “What now, Boss?” They’d dispersed the rest of their small crew into buddy teams and formed a loose perimeter that would avoid drawing any attention while still providing some security, and advanced warning, if anyone was heading in their direction.

“Now we use this to our advantage.” Noah’s mind was on two different tracks. First, was how to make the best of this situation, and second, was that some rich asshat in that building was probably involved in robbing him of an eight-figure payday. He explained his plan to Able, so he could give the orders.

“Noah, get in touch with those revolutionaries we interacted with. Tell them we can give them real-time targeting data on these wealthy assholes, but they’re gonna have to pay for it. Smitty, you’re going to fill in as a parking guy and put trackers on anyone that looks important.”

“How will I know who’s important?” Smitty asked, as the clean smart-cloth spread across his chest.

“If a gaggle of these fuckers are surrounding someone, then they’re a VIP.”

“Boss,” Noah played the submissive role. “Some of these cars do randomized scans that search for bugs like the ones we’re going to place. We should probably program the devices to stay on standby mode until they’ve reached a certain altitude or traveled a certain distance before activating. Or we can set up a spotter team to remote activate them. This way they’ll avoid detection on a cursory scan” The suggestions were actually orders.

“Good thinking.” Able nodded. “Do that, Smitty.”

“Sure thing, Cap’n,” the man grumbled.

“And, Smitty…”

“Yeah…”

“Try to smile. These people get tipped for being nice.” Able advised.

Smitty attempted a smile, and Noah cringed. It would be a miracle if they could pull this off.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Why are there so many forks?” Coop was seated, along with the other few hundred guests, at the big-ass table, and he’d never been so confused about how to eat before in his life.

Coop didn’t even know that forks were supposed of go on the left-hand side of his plate, and now he was staring at five of them. A waitress deposited a salad in front of him with an impressive flourish, but Coop was too busy to even admire the tightness of her shirt.

There was probably a method to the madness of the seating chart. That much Coop figured out. First off, Thomas Gold was all the way at one side of the table. Ben Gold was sitting up with him, along with someone that the LT was calling Vanessa Black. She seemed a little miffed that the attractive, dark-skinned, blue-in-her-eyes woman was sitting next to the LCDR, while the rest of the military personnel present, except the RADM, were at the opposite end of the table. Coop felt for the LT, but he had his own shitstorm brewing.

On Coop’s right was Eve, and on his left was Mike. Next to Mike was Aiko, and Coop was wondering if the universe was conspiring against him. At first, it seemed like a good idea that Mike was a buffer, but now if felt like someone, or something, was fucking with him because Aiko looked even more pissed that he was sitting next to Eve and not her.

<I can’t catch a break.> Coop went to pick up the fork closest to his plate: a thin, three-pronged thing that looked like the runt of the litter.

“Not that one.” Eve cut him off. If Coop had gone any farther, he swore she would have slapped his hand like he was a child. “Start from the outside and work your way in. The salad fork should be on the far left.”

“Who has a fork just for salad,” Coop grabbed the correct fork and stabbed in repeatedly into the pile of green leaves to get a healthy portion size. The repeated clanging of his fork against the bottom of the plate drew stares.

“For fuck’s sake,” Eve sighed, as she grabbed Coop’s hand.

Coop would have loved for there to have been some spark of familiar memory that shot through his balls and heart, but no such shock came. Instead, she ripped the fork out of his hand, and showed him how to eat all sophisticated.

“You’ve got to slow down, take your time, savor the taste, and don’t damage the place setting.” Eve shoved the fork back into his hand and turned back to his own food.

“You seem to know an awful lot about this?” Coop questioned, as he did what he was instructed. He could feel his stomach grumbling as he picked through the rabbit food.

“I did my research before we came,” Eve replied without looking at him.

“You researched how to eat?” Coop laughed, but was rudely interrupted by Mike jabbing his elbow into his ribs.

“No, I researched all of this.” Eve’s eyes wandered around the biggest dinner party Coop had ever seen, including on the holo shows about ancient earth kingdoms. “The Gold’s are known for extravagant parties. I expected something like this, so I made sure I knew how to handle myself. That’s your first lesson of training, Cooper, figure out what you’re about to get in to, and then learn everything you can about that before you get there. It’ll save you from looking like an ass, or better yet, save your life.”

“We’re the same rank you know.” Coop’s ego took a bit of a hit, and he had to reassert himself.

“Neither of us belongs at this rank. We’re only here because of an executive order, and honestly, you should probably still be a PFC with your record.” Eve’s comment only stung Coop’s ego more.

“I made corporal fair and square,” Coop grumbled back.

“And with all the disciplinary things I’ve seen, I’m surprised you didn’t get busted back down,” she countered.

“Hey, I was proven innocent in that court martial.” Coop stabbed his salad fork at her for emphasis.

“You were not guilty. That’s far from innocent.” Eve cut Coop’s argument off at the knees, and left Coop fuming. So, fuming, he went back to stabbing his fork into the plate to get the last few bits of salad.

A crack was amplified by the room’s acoustics as his fork split off a decent-sized chunk of the plate.

“Cooper,” SSG Hightower was sitting on the opposite side of Aiko. “Unfuck yourself before I put my foot so far up your ass it comes out with bits of that salad attached to it.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” Coop grumbled, while Eve shook her head at him.

<I hate fancy people shit.> Coop looked to his left, in the hopes of getting some positive reinforcement from the only other girl at the table that he knew couldn’t stand this uppity shit like him.

All he got from Aiko was a glare. Apparently, him talking with Eve wasn’t sitting well. It didn’t matter if it was what fork he was supposed to use and pointless crap like that.

<Give me a break.> He sighed, just as the fish course arrived.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 204

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“We’re going to be late,” Coop grumbled from the passenger seat as he changed.

Aiko had seen him naked, so he wasn’t worried about that, but people might peep in from passing cars, and Aiko’s vehicle was old enough it didn’t have auto-tint on the windows.

“No we aren’t,” Aiko replied, with a barely contained eye roll, that lingered for a second on his junk.

Everything at the seedy bar had gone off without a hitch, but on the way back toward the defense complex they hit traffic. Traffic wouldn’t have been surprising, but this traffic was heading in the wrong direction. Neither Aiko nor Coop had planned for this when they went out to make a few grand. The consequence of that was going to be the SGM’s wrath if they were late to Gold’s shindig.

“We’re going to be late.” Coop repeated himself when they sat idle for five whole minutes.

“Stop being a pussy!” Aiko snapped and glared. “I’m sorry if we’re going to be late for your girlfriend’s little party.”

Coop’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t think of what to say. <Talk about waiting for the right moment to bring up a sensitive topic.> He wisely didn’t say that out loud.

“She’s not my girlfriend.” Coop knew he sounded like a thirteen year old when saying it, but he had nothing better that wouldn’t get him punched in the nuts.

“Don’t lie to me.” Aiko’s voice dropped to a deadly octave. “We’ve been through a lot of shit, and are going to go through even more. I’m not a blind idiot, so don’t treat me like one.”

Coop thought he heard a twinge of hurt in her voice, but the look on her face dispelled that thought. “She’s not my girlfriend,” he repeated with conviction. “We did it six months ago after Basic, but we aren’t a couple.”

“You could have fooled me.” Aiko gave him one last glare and turned her attention back to the road.

Coop tried in vain to reengage her in conversation, but she wasn’t having any of it. All of this was catching him totally off guard. He’d seen her shrug off a whole lot worse than this with nothing but a haughty smile. Hell, he’d been pretty sure she knew he was sleeping around on New Lancashire while they were boning. Now, all of a sudden, she met one of his exes, who wasn’t really even an ex, and she was all bent out of shape. <Women?> He didn’t have any other explanation for it.

Traffic continued all the way to the defense complex, and they soon saw why. “Is that a valet stand?” They were the first words Aiko spoke since the fight.

Sure enough, a small contingent of attractive men and women in black slacks, white shirts, and black vests with the Gold Technologies insignia on the left breast were scanning GICs and taking hover cars to park somewhere on the base.

<If I boosted one of those I’d be set for the year.> Coop watched as some of the latest model luxury brands stopped at the stand, and expensively dressed couples emerged.

“Son of a bitch,” Aiko’s curse brought him out of a small daydream of him driving the latest Porsche through New Savannah’s evening breeze, with the air whipping through his hair, and a beautiful girl in the passenger seat. The woman in his mind’s eye looked like a blend of Eve and Aiko, which wasn’t helping his case with the woman in the driver’s seat. “All the spots are taken.” She let fly a string of curse words as she wove through the lot.

“Just take it to the valet stand, my treat.” Coop hoped the offer might start to repair whatever rift he’d unknowingly created with Aiko, but she just grunted and got back into line.

“Welcome to the Gold Technologies Election Day Soiree,” the man who stepped up to Aiko’s side door smiled like he was about to get laid for the first time. His smile only faltered slightly when he saw the car was a junker and had two people in casual clothes in it.

“Thanks,” Aiko got out and tossed him the keys.

“Don’t scratch the paint or she’ll rip your dick off.” Coop tipped the guy a ten dollar chip. “You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.” He made sure the guy knew the gravity of the situation before following her toward the large building at the center of the complex.

“How much did you tip?” Aiko walked close enough to him that it said she might be thinking about forgiving him.

“Ten bucks,” Coop’s grin was cut short when her fist hit him in the kidney. “What the hell?!”

“Ten dollars. I’ll be lucky to get my car back with its tires still attached!” she fumed.

“What did I do?” Coop called after her.

She didn’t answer, but he was pretty sure ten bucks wasn’t doing the trick, which blew his mind, because the number of cars he saw times ten would net those workers a chunk of cash for doing nothing more than parking cars. In Coop’s mind, that was more than adequate compensation.

<Only one way to find out.> Coop dropped back a little to the elderly couple walking behind him. They had blue specks in their eyes, and hair that had gone all white, which meant they were probably closing in on their mid-one hundreds, maybe even two hundred.

“Hey, buddy, what did you tip?” Coop’s question took the man by surprise.

“What…how…” he blubbered for a second while his wife looked around like she wanted to call security.

“This isn’t complex math, how much did you tip the valet guy?” Coop frowned with impatience, and the man relented.

“Two hundred,” he stated.

“What the fuck!” Coop couldn’t help himself. He’d been solidly laid for half that amount. “I’m in the wrong business.” He shook his head and left the elderly couple to mumble to themselves about riff-raff or whatever the hell rich people did.

By the time Coop reached the front door Aiko was already inside. If he was honest with himself, he preferred it that way. Eve might not be his girlfriend, but he didn’t want to show up with Aiko like she was his girlfriend. They were more fuckbuddies than in a relationship, that term was strictly reserved for business. Coop’s head hurt just thinking about it, so he didn’t. He followed the throng of people entering the front doors. Instead of heading in the direction of the lift that would take them down to the lab where Argo was getting an upgrade, he went the opposite direction. He didn’t make it halfway down the hallway before coming to a halt. People were lined up at the door, and some loud old guy was shouting out their names before they entered the room.

<I thought this was supposed to be a small get together?> Evidentially, a Gold’s idea of a small get together was a few hundred of the planet’s elite gathered in a ballroom that looked like it belonged in a castle. <Where did this room come from?> Coop had been in this building a few times. He’d even been down in this area before, but he’d never seen a room this big and filled with this much crap. It was even more impressive since he was pretty sure Thomas Gold decided yesterday to throw this party, and everyone on the planet had bent over backward to attend.

Coop was so busy taking in the spectacle that he missed stepping up in front of the old guy at the entrance. “Sergeant Mark Cooper, United Commonwealth of Colonies Infantry.” The man announced in a voice way too powerful for his body.

A light smattering of applause swept through the room. Apparently, it was nice to clap for people. Coop gave a half-hearted wave, but his full attention was pulled to what was at the center of the room. Surrounded by people, and nearly the entire diameter of the large room, was a table hovering just off the ground. Hundreds of seats surrounded the table; where silverware made of gold, authentic crystal cups, and gold-rimmed plates threated to crush even the best anti-grav systems.

Coop ignored the people and went right to the table. He really wanted to see if it was real gold, but a hand grabbed his shoulder before he could pick up a knife.

“Cooper, come over here.” Lieutenant Commander Gold steered him toward the SRRT team that was huddled in a corner, clearly not knowing what to do. Even the SGM looked out of place in all of this opulence.

Coop smiled in Eve’s direction, but got a neutral glance. That was an improvement. Unfortunately, Aiko also saw it, and her neutral glance turned into a glower. <So much for that threesome.> Coop just shook his head and went to stand in the corner with everyone else.

 

***

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Ben made sure to arrive at the party early. It was standard operating procedure for one of his father’s get togethers. He always played them off like they were nothing, but they usually cost millions of dollars, and drew a planet’s most privileged like moths to a flame. It was how Thomas Gold showed dominance. He acted like the party was nothing at all, while to everyone else it was the social engagement of the year.

“Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold, United Commonwealth of Colonies Fleet, Gold Technologies.” Ben couldn’t help but roll his eyes as the man with a truly powerful voice announced his presence like it was medieval Europe.

There were only about two dozen people present, but all of them turned toward to entryway at the mention of the Gold name.

“Lieutenant Jacobi Wentworth, United Commonwealth of Colonies Infantry.” Since Jacobi was on his arm, she drew a lot of attention as well.

“Just keep walking. Don’t get tied down in conversation with anyone, just say your hellos and keep moving. What is it you grunts say: shoot, move and communicate? The same principle applies here.”

“Who knew infantry tactics and elite socialization had so much in common,” she joked as she waved at a few people looking to intercept them, but kept moving. “Where are we going?”

“Where does anyone go to make dull conversation bearable? . . . The bar.” Ben’s long stride didn’t falter as he approached his destination.

The bar in question went the width of the room and was manned by nearly a dozen smartly-dressed, attractive bartenders. Ben took a seat in the far corner, so he could see the entirety of the room, and ordered drinks.

“Oh my god!” Jacobi exclaimed after taking a sip of her drink. “This is the best Cosmo I’ve ever tasted.”

“Only top shelf from dad…speaking of.” Ben righted himself and mentally prepared.

“Benjamin!” His father called out as he led a young woman toward them. “There you are.”

“Here I am.” Ben smiled more for the sake of the woman than his father.

“I’d like to introduce you to Doctor Vanessa Black. Dr. Black, my youngest son, Benjamin.” Then, like the wind, Thomas dissolved into the background to mingle.

<Seriously.> Ben kept a smile on his face, but inside he was steaming. His father only ever introduced people to him for two reasons. The first was related to business, which meant, despite Ben’s insistence, his father was trying to drag him more into Gold Technologies’ operations. The second was even worse then the first. Vanessa Black was an attractive woman, which made it a distinct possibility that he was trying to arrange something between his son and her, despite Jacobi standing right next to him.

“Vanessa Black, of Blacktide Armaments?” Surprisingly, it was Jacobi who broke the ice.

“Yes,” Vanessa smiled back, but Ben thought there might be a little something extra concealed on her face. “My father is the CEO, I’m just the planetary manager here on New Savannah. We are the most productive planet in the company, but daddy didn’t want to bring me right on at corporate. He always said field experience is important.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Now Jacobi was smiling. “Ranges and field problems can only do so much to train you, but nothing really compares to actual combat.” Now, Ben was pretty sure Jacobi’s face was concealing more than she was saying.

The conversation between the two women was nothing but cordial, but Ben had the feeling more was going on than he suspected. “So, Vanessa, how did you gain the vote?” It was a common question to ask on Election Day, and since it was an Election Day party, Ben thought it was appropriate.

“I got it for doing five years with Doctors without Borders. I split the time between the contested systems between the Maccabees and New Caliphate, the natural disaster back in the Canberra System in 2422, and a year on New Sparta tending to whoever the City States would let us.” Vanessa smiled back at Jacobi, and Ben was certain something unsaid was passing between the two women.

“That must have been interesting.” Ben smiled and took a deep pull of his drink.

“It was interesting and rewarding. After getting my MD from Harvard Medical School on Earth, and MBA from New Capitol University on New Washington, I needed to gain some experience. Like you said, Lieutenant, school and training can only do so much.”

Jacobi just nodded and took a healthy sip of her own drink.

“Between you and me,” Vanessa leaned in closer. “I think your father wants to make some sort of deal with Blacktide. I don’t know what yet, but I think half of this party is to show off for me and the few members of the board who could make it.”

Ben had read up on the major players in the New Savannah system before arriving so he would be prepared for conversations like this. That was something positive his father had drilled into him since childhood.  Blacktide Armaments was nowhere near the size of Gold Technologies. It still had government contracts creating some shipboard weaponry, but its money maker was in security. It had filled the niche of protecting small and medium sized shipping companies for over a century. Some independent systems even supplemented their militia forces with Blacktide’s corporate fleet. As with any corporation of a particular size, Blacktide was also in other avenues of business, but its name was primarily linked to its ability to project its corporate forces anywhere at any time to meet their client’s needs. Whether that client was a regional warlord who wanted to conquer an embattled planet, or a church group on missionary work that wanted protection, it didn’t matter to Blacktide. Ben had several gigabytes of bad press that the company got itself into once every decade, but being able to point to someone like Vanessa as an example of their moral compass was an important tool in the company’s kit.

<And with the new technology the Hegemony is bringing in, dad wants to gobble up that market share.> Ben thought through the situation.

“Vanessa, to be honest, my father doesn’t do deals. He does acquisitions.” Ben didn’t feel like he needed to keep his hypothesis a secret, and judging by the look on her face, Ben wasn’t the only one who’d come to that conclusion.

“Blacktide didn’t meet the threshold to do business with the Hegemony, but Gold Technologies did. If we sell to your father for a handsome price, and stock options, we’ll be getting in with Gold right before it explodes with new tech. Gold is already one of the biggest companies in the galaxy, if you add new contracts with the aliens to that, it’s going to be catapulted to the biggest. I’m willing to get in on that.”

<Oh no!> That’s when it hit Ben. His father had introduced him to the very beautiful, very connected, and very single Vanessa Black for not one of his usual reasons, but both. He wanted Blacktide Armaments, and he wanted a firm alliance between two corporate families: the Gold’s and the Black’s.

He looked at Jacobi, who looked like she’d tasted something sour, and then he looked at Vanessa, who was smiling in apparent victory. On the scales by which the people with blue in their eyes judged themselves, Vanessa checked off all the boxes: successful corporate family, all the right enhancements, all the right schools, all the right degrees, and all the right career experiences. Jacobi on the other hand, was a mere infantry LT, with a Bachelor’s degree, no family wealth, and no corporate experience. In Vanessa’s, and Ben’s father’s eyes, Jacobi might be a good hiring opportunity, but she was not girlfriend or marriage material.

“Sergeant Mark Cooper, United Commonwealth of Colonies Infantry.” Ben hadn’t noticed the ballroom start to fill up since the start of their conversation, but he heard the announcer loud and clear.

“Excuse us, Vanessa, that’s one of our soldiers that we need to go wrangle.” Ben remained polite as he grabbed Jacobi’s hand and dragged her away from the bar and toward Coop, who looked suddenly very interested in the silverware.

Ben quickly scooped him up and took him to where the rest of the SRRT was huddled. In this crowd there was safety in numbers.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 202

Benjamin Gold

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

On a normal world, the setting sun would have brought about some relief from the strangling humidity on New Savannah, but as Ben walked through one of the city’s many parks, he felt no such relief. New Savannah had three moons, one was occupied as the system defense force and Commonwealth Fleet’s main anchorage in the system. The second belonged to none other than Gold Technologies, and the third was split between a few other defense contractors.

The moons were crucial to defense and industry in the system. It gave the defensive units a hundred million kilometer buffer between any invading force and the planet full of civilians. As for the corporations, while their headquarters might be on New Savannah, all the real work got done up on the moons. Operational security dictated that a lot of the testing of new weapons and equipment couldn’t be done around populated areas, so a barren moon was the best option. Although, Gold Technologies’ moon wasn’t quite barren. It had a small, domed city with nearly a hundred thousand people living in it, and if projections continued to hold steady, there was even talk about terraforming the moon into a livable home.

As Ben walked the street of New Savannah, he didn’t care about any of that. He was concerned with the extra light the three moons threw off and the hell it played with the circadian rhythm that humanity was forced to evolve beyond as it spread from planet to planet, none of which lined up exactly with Earth.

“So…who are you voting for?” Ben turned to his companion for the evening.

Jacobi Wentworth was dressed just like Ben, to impress. Both were in their CMUs on the dress setting. Those were their orders for the evening. Both might have thought it was a slight conflict of interest to be dining at the behest of a corporation, but RADM Stillwater had told them to go. Although Ben and Jacobi didn’t really like the ranking Commonwealth officer on the planet, they still had to follow his orders. It made it just that more awkward that the person inviting them was Ben’s dad.

“The way I always do: Progressive,” Jacobi answered nonchalantly.

The response stopped Ben in his tracks, and she continued to walk a few steps before realizing he’d dropped behind. “Seriously?” Ben couldn’t stop the word from coming out condescendingly. “You want Mackintosh to stay in power?”

Jacobi frowned at him, and placed her hands on her hips. Her single platinum stripe caught one of the moon’s light, which also highlighted the intensity in her eyes. “I believe in the party platform, Ben. The Commonwealth should be doing more. We shouldn’t just be confined to matters of security, trade, and taxation. I think some other common principles between the Commonwealth’s member systems should be explored more.” Her hands went from her hips to crossed across her chest in a classic defensive cue. “So, I suppose you’re an Eagle supporter.”

“I do not think the current administration has managed the Commonwealth well over the last several years.” Ben didn’t back down, but he held any bite out of his tone. “The Prime Minister pushed this big education reform, spent billions on it, and it never gained any traction. That’s just one example. The Commonwealth was designed the way it was, to only deal with matters of security, trade, and taxation, because our founders knew that anything else wasn’t going to work out. The differences between New Washington and Asgard, New Lancashire and New Savannah, even Earth and Mars, make trying to shove everyone into a single way of doing things impossible and dangerous.”

“I’m not saying that everyone should have to do everything the same,” Jacobi countered.

“But that isn’t the way humans and power act,” Ben interrupted. “Once they get one thing, especially if it is something as contentious as education, across the Commonwealth, they’re going to want another, and another. Soon, they’re going to demand everyone think the way they do, and anything other than that mindset is deemed inferior or even hateful.”

“I think that’s taking it too far.” Jacobi frowned.

“History says otherwise,” Ben was ready to list off half a dozen examples from Ancient Rome to pre-expansion America, but she waved him off.

“So, I bet you think the Eagles way of outsourcing everything to corporations is the best way to do it.” Now it was her turn to fight back.

“It’s a little hard for me to be objective about what you’re asking because of who I am, but in general I do agree with aspects of it.” Ben pondered his response for a second. “It’s like a range. The Commonwealth is range control, the safety officer, and the trainers. They provide the left and right limits, correct, or punish anyone if they do anything wrong. The corporations are the soldiers on the firing line. They know their limits and need to act within them to meet whatever the objective is; whether that’s an individual systems educational curriculum, or trade routes.”

“Thanks for dumbing it down for us stupid grunts,” Jacobi glared and started to stomp off.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way,” Ben hurried after her, and his long legs allowed him to get in front of her quickly. “I just thought it was a good analogy.”

“An analogy that completely sidesteps the growing corporate influence on our government; influence that will only grow if an Eagle prime minister gets into power.” Jacobi stopped when Ben’s hand touched her shoulder.

“We’re completely in agreement there.” Ben nodded, while Jacobi looked a little surprised at the admission. “I’ve seen those high-level good old boys and girls rub each other’s backs for favors, promises, and to get ahead. Hell, I had an old girlfriend do it to me.” Ben cringed a little bit when Sarah came to mind. “But it comes down to a simple risk assessment for me. We’re in the middle of a war on two, hell, maybe even three fronts. We’ve got the ongoing feud with the Blockies, the Windsors bashing in our back door, and now we’ve got aliens whose intentions we don’t know. Carol seems fine enough, but you heard her, they aren’t trading with the Windsors, so who is?” Ben knew he’d scored a few points when Jacobi looked thoughtful. “So, my risk assessment tells me I’d like someone like Admiral Simons in charge of this instead of Mackintosh, who’s never worn a uniform or served on anything except a corporate board of directors.

“You do know that Deja Simons was an Infantry Admiral not Fleet?” A smile pulled a Jacobi’s lips, and that made Ben grin back. “Unlike some Fleet officers, I’m fond of a few infantry grunts.”

“Oh…really…” Jacobi chuckled and threw her hands around the back of Ben’s neck. At 178 centimeters, she was tall for a woman, but she still had to crane her neck up so Ben could lean down and kiss her.

“You know I was talking about Sergeant Cooper…right.”

“Asshole,” Jacobi slapped him in the chest but smiled.

Ben pretended it hurt, before his hand found hers, and they continued walking toward the voting center. What had just occurred was the mark of a healthy relationship in Ben’s opinion. People could have different worldviews, different beliefs, sometimes even radically so; but what really mattered was how those arguments ended. Not in screaming and punches, but in laughter and kindness.

“At least we’re not Blockies,” Jacobi added as they climbed the steps. This voting center was located at some type of local theater. “If we were we’d all have to toe the party line or be labeled as undesirables.”

Ben couldn’t agree more as he held up his GIC to be scanned at the reception booth. Ben’s GIC matched with a registered voter in the Commonwealth’s database, so he was allowed to pass. He gave a small nod to the two soldiers flanking the entrance in Dragonscale armor before heading inside.

Unlike younger members of the military, Ben had met the minimum obligation in an approved suffrage service, and earned the privilege of voting in Commonwealth-level elections. He waited in line for a few minutes before he was waved forward and into one of the privacy booths. It was very similar to testing cubes used throughout the Commonwealth, just not as intrusive. He had to crouch down a little to enter the booth, but it opened to allow him to pass instead of him having at wiggle through it. When he emerged on the other side it was brightly lit and almost homey.

“Welcome to the 2433 Commonwealth Election!” A cheery female voice announced. “Please scan your GIC on the device at the center of the room, and confirm your information. If the information is incorrect in any way, please notify an election official.”

Ben scanned his GIC and took a seat in the comfortable chair at the center of the booth. He dutifully studied his information as it sprang to life in the air in front of him.

 

Name: Benjamin Gold

Genetic Identification Code: NY0511240650671

Physical Health: Superior

Mental Health: [Authorized Personnel Only]

Education: Doctorate in Intergalactic Relations from Oxford University

Occupation: Lieutenant Commander, United Commonwealth of Colonies Fleet

Criminal History: N/A

Citizen Status: Confirmed

Voting Status: Eligible

 

Ben was glad to see that his education and occupation had updated. The last thing he wanted to do today was have to sit with election officials for hours while they figured out how to update his information in the voter registration system.

“The information is correct.” Ben’s voice command caused a green light to blink, and then the information disappeared. What appeared in its place was his first voting option.

Due to the expansive nature of the Commonwealth election day, it could take up anywhere from twenty minutes to a few hours of a voter’s time, which was why the voting booths were so accommodating. Ben’s registration had him as a citizen of Aurum, the corporate homeworld of Gold Technologies. It didn’t matter that he’d been born, and lived most of his life on Earth, Ben’s father made sure each of his children were registered as a citizen of Aurum for legal reasons. In fact, Ben believed they held foreign dignitary status as representatives of Aurum, but that was true of most majority shareholders from corporate worlds. Thus, the first round of voting considerations was for local Aurum proposals and candidates in the city he was registered in: Dinas Aur. Ben didn’t know the people, so he watched short holos of their platforms before making a decision. He also read the ordinance proposals carefully before voting yes or no.

Uneducated voting was a downfall of pre-expansion societies, and as someone who’d studied these things very carefully, Ben was doing his part not to repeat the mistakes of the past. After he’d gone through all of Dinas Aur’s voting subjects he moved on to Aurum’s candidates and proposals. Because he’d had a healthy conversation with Jacobi, he watched the platform videos, and archived campaign footage, on the candidates to represent Aurum on the Council of Representatives. Aurum had five seats, and ten real total candidates, five from each major party. Ben didn’t pay much attention to the minor party candidates. After listening to what the politicians had to say, Ben went four for five on Eagle Party candidates. The last candidate he voted Progressive because of the guy’s view on the New Lancashire incident. The fact that he didn’t call it a debacle, like the Eagle Party candidate, won the guy Ben’s vote. Lastly, were Commonwealth level initiatives.

The Prime Minister of the Commonwealth was not elected directly by the people. They were elected by the majority party, or a coalition of parties in the Council of Representatives. In-depth research by the Commonwealth founders had chosen this system over the American Presidential System. That meant, Ezekiel Mackintosh’s reelection or Admiral Simons’ election would be up to the Council when it gathered after the election results were tallied in several months.

In total, it took Ben about an hour to vote, and when he was done, he still had to wait another twenty minutes for Jacobi.  Since she was from East Newfoundland, he had no idea what proposals that system had put to the voters, and she didn’t really want to discuss it when she emerged. Not because she wanted to hide anything, but because they had more important things to consider.

“That was the easy part of the night.” Ben held out his arm and she took it.

Considering they’d just voted on items whose ramifications would ripple across the Commonwealth for the better part of a decade, told you just how hard a dinner with Thomas Gold was going to be.

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