Two Worlds – Chapter 257

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

<Come on!> Ben’s knuckles popped as he gripped his command chair to control his terror. <And I thought I should be worried about Jacobi.> He almost laughed, but the holo-tank showed Argo was going through another series of evasive maneuvers.

 

He didn’t dare speak to PO3 Lee. The young NCO was cocooned in the helmsman’s sphere of controls and data. She and Amber were keeping them from getting blown to smithereens.

 

Everything had gone to hell in a handbasket when Argo swung around for its second pass. They’d barely collected their data before active sensors pinged them on their approach. They’d devised their flight path based on limited movement hypothesized by Amber, but something had obviously happened to throw that hypothesis right out the window.

 

All of the enemy’s destroyers were fanning out around the system, and Argo nearly ran into a trio of them. Since then, it had been a game of cat and mouse. Argo’s speed and upgraded defenses were what was keeping her alive long enough to reach the FTL limit.

 

<So close!> Ben bit the inside of his cheek as his gunboat was rocked by an explosion.

 

A damage report automatically scrolled on across the side of his command terminal. Their countermeasures had caught the missile well outside effective range. Some of the sensors facing in that direction needed to recalibrate after a near hit, but that would be done in seconds.

 

“New enemy contact.” Amber’s voice was too calm for the situation as another angry, red icon appeared on the holo-tank.

 

This one was bigger and coming out of an asteroid field that had been cloaking its emissions.

 

“Time to the limit?” Ben asked, as he heard the strain in his own voice.

 

“Three minutes and twelve seconds…eleven…ten,” Amber informed.

 

“Time until missile range on the new contact?”

 

“Two minutes and seventeen seconds.”

 

“Flight time of those birds on maximum burn?”

 

“Fifty five seconds.”

 

<Shit.> The missiles were literally going to blow up in their face right as they transitioned out.

 

“Lee, fire up the Alcubierre Drive,” he made a decision.

 

“What, sir?” she snapped her out of her trance and the ship shuddered from a glancing energy beam.

 

Ben kept his eye on the shield’s power level, but was confident they’d hold together until jumping. “Alcubierre is faster than portaling. We’ll do a short jump, reorient, and then portal back to the nearest friendly system.”

 

“Aye, sir,” she was back to work with her hands flying across the controls.

 

Ben watched as the seconds ticked down until two dozen, smaller red icons burst from the cruiser closing in on them.

 

“Drive powering up, fifty four seconds to jump,” Aiko confirmed as the storm of death rained toward them.”

 

“Did the data packet get back to HQ?” Ben asked. That was the mission after all.

 

With the enemy ships on the move, they’d been able to get a better count than before, but that didn’t help his estimation of chances on retaking the system. There were ten percent more ships than he originally thought, and while that might only be three more ships. Three ships with shields and extended missile ranges was going to be hell for any Commonwealth ship coming into the system.

 

“Thirty seconds.” Amber’s voice was still annoyingly emotionless.

 

All Ben could do was sit back and wait for the fireworks, and at roughly the same time Argo jumped to FTL and the enemy’s salvo detonated.

 

The one positive that came from it all was that it took the Windsor’s ship a little bit to figure out they’d missed. The negative was that Ben and Aiko knew all too well they were leaving the SRRT team on Harper’s Junction for the duration of their mission, and that could be indefinitely if the Commonwealth decided not to retake the system.

 

 

 

Admiral Sonya Berg

 

Location: New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies              

 

Sonya, along with the rest of the senior admirals in the system stood patiently as the new prime minister’s yacht pulled into orbit around the massive Valley Forge Yards and detached a plethora of shuttles. The “yacht” was actually a decommissioned cruiser that had been modified for diplomatic voyages, and had recently been released from Valley Forge with a slew of new upgrades. The PM was protected by better armor, shields, longer-range missiles, and more powerful energy weapons than most of the Commonwealth fleet.

 

Sonya saw the irony there, and was excited to sit down with her new boss.

 

Unlike other governments through history, she was not worried about her job. The PM didn’t choose what officers served in what critical posts. The admirals chose those most qualified and then sent the decision to the PM for ratification. It had been nearly eighty years since a PM had failed to ratify an admiral for a priority post, and that PM had faced a vote of no confidence within the month and was out on their political ass shortly after. Politicians were supposed to provide oversight and not dig their fingers into military concepts they didn’t understand.

 

<Finally, a woman who knows what she’s talking about.>

 

The security shuttles took up protective positions as the PM’s shuttled docked with the station and disgorged its passengers. The Valley Forge Ship Yards was the largest warship facility in human space. It would have been the galaxy before coming into contact with the Hegemony, but seeing what the massive collection of species was capable of, everyone was sure Valley Forge wouldn’t even break their top fifty.

 

In fact, there was a massive Twig ship currently docked on the far end of the station. It was delivering the next-gen technology that human engineers would then need to fit into the new classes of warships being developed, and the older ships being retrofitted.

 

Sonya knew this whole meeting might be on the books as a meet and greet, but she knew the new boss better than that. This was a meeting of her war cabinet and anyone who didn’t realize that, was going to find themselves out of a job very shortly.

 

Sonya resisted the urge to pop a stim to keep herself focused, but instead maintained an expressionless face as the doors on the far side of the room slid open. Members of the PM’s security detail entered first, followed by the woman herself.

 

“Keep your seats,” she ordered before everyone could rise.

 

Sonya could feel the different atmosphere in the room. Mackintosh hadn’t been able to handle a room of military specialists. He might be able to win over a crowd at a rally for education reform, but the business of war was clearly outside his wheelhouse. Simmons didn’t have that same handicap.

 

Deja Simmons (ADM retired) didn’t cut a big, imposing figure. She was only a couple centimeters over one-sixty, with un-enhanced hazel eyes, and close-cropped black hair that looked rather plain against her dark skin. Her social pundits frequently attacked her lack of style and her preference for everything utilitarian. Those same pundits failed to realize that mindset constantly hurt them when it came to the business of government. What the people who elected Simmons to office, then to leader of the Eagle Party, and finally to Prime Minister, really cared about was that she got the job done.

 

Sonya watched those intelligent, hazel eyes scan the room as she took her seat and got straight down to business. “What is our status?”

 

The RADM in charge of Valley Forge immediately brought up holos of construction queues, refit statuses, and timelines.

 

“Anyway we can speed this up?” Simmons asked after a minute perusing the data.

 

“More money and manpower,” the RADM shrugged comically, not realizing it was serious question.

 

“Get me figures by the end of the day for what you need to cut these timelines in half.” Simmons turned her attention to the next senior officer on her list, and ignored the pallor that settled on the RADM’s face due to his new tasking.

 

“Do we have the personnel trained and ready to man the ships?” Her next question went to the ADM in charge of recruitment and training for the entire fleet.

 

“We’ve introduced train the trainer course with the help of our alien allies in the new systems and tech. Since we don’t have any systems to spare for actual training demos it is going to be a little touch and go how qualified our people really are in an emergency situation. We do have people thinking outside the box in terms of training techniques,” he quickly added when the PM’s face started to sour. “The classes are actually helping on the installation and learning some tips from the yard workers. We’re hoping for the best.”

 

“Hope for the best, plan for the worst. I want an updated training plan on my desk by the end of the week.” Simmons cut the man off at the knees, and Sonya saw his face go beet red.

 

That particular ADM had been in his current position for close to thirty years. He was good at his job, but he was a little pompous and complacent at times. He needed someone to light a fire under his ass every few years, and the PM had just done that.

 

“That gives us the ships and the people that’ll be ready to take the fight to the enemy. Where are we going to be fighting?” Simmons turned her attention to Sonya.

 

Unlike most of the people in this room, Sonya had a prior relationship with the new PM. Once upon a time, a lowly Lieutenant Commander Berg had served with a certain Lieutenant Commander Simmons. She’d been an assistant Intel department OIC while the PM was the ship’s marine commander. They’d fought Blockies and pirates together on the battleship CWS Dauntless in what felt like another lifetime ago.

 

“The Windsor’s hit us hard on multiple fronts, but in most they didn’t stick around. They induced the maximum amount of destruction before retreating and then consolidating in a handful on annexed systems.” Sonya sent the data to her former compatriot with a swipe of her finger. “We’ve had teams using the new alien tech watching these system for weeks now, and they’ve been constantly updating us with intelligence.” As if on cue, a beep announced another data dump.

 

“As a matter of fact…” Sonya began, then frowned as she scanned the data. “Our team from Harper’s Ferry was identified and chased out of the system. They did complete their mission and get actionable intelligence on enemy naval strength, and the infantry unit assigned to them has linked with the local rebellion and begun insurgency activities.”

 

“But the team was still on planet when the ship had to bug out,” Simmons finished.

 

While Sonya had been talking, Simmons had brought up all the available data on the annexed systems and lined them up on the holo in front of her to compare and contrast. A minute more of concentrating and she’d cut the list in half and minimized the data.

 

“Our boots on the ground are reporting different force types in these three systems,” she identified. “This one’s naval presence is too big,” another system’s data was minimized, “but one of these two should do.” Harper’s Ferry and one other system remained highlighted for everyone else to see. “And since we’ve abandoned our team on Harper’s Ferry that’s where we need to go first.” The PM made an executive decision on the spot, which was something Mackintosh would have needed a committee and a week to decide.

 

“I want an operations order hashed out and on my desk in two weeks. That’ll give the yard time to pump up production and get these ships out for their shakedown cruises.” There was more than one pale face at the PM’s demands.

 

“We’re going to take back our systems ladies and gentlemen.” For such a small woman, the PM could instill a lot of confidence in people. “So buckle in and get ready to work. The op tempo is about to pick up around here until we get back what is ours.”

Sonya couldn’t stop her smile from forming. The Commonwealth had been playing defense with the Windsor’s for too long. It was time to turn the tables. 

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Two Worlds – Chapter 251

Benjamin Gold

Location: Argo, Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

<Steady…steady…> Ben couldn’t say what he was thinking out loud.

Argo’s AI was the best in human hands and PO3 Lee was a hell of a pilot. If anyone could get them through the minefield of remote sensors that were being seeded throughout the system, or the flotilla of ships in orbit and scouting the elliptic, it was them. Still, there was no shortness of chair-gripping, breath-holding moments on their approach.

The Windsor’s force in system wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t small either, and that was only what they were picking up on a distant pass. They were operating on the principle that the Windsor’s sensors as good as theirs, so they planned accordingly. The splitstream jump was made from a comfortable distance, but there was no way, even with Argo’s enhanced equipment, that they could get a good read on the Windsor’s deployment from that kind of distance. So, they made a run through the gauntlet.

Ben and Aiko had fallen into a comfortable silence over the last few hours. It was just the two of them, and they could have easily and silently communicated through their IORs, but not making a sound felt more normal. Ben had read about old, wet-navy submarines and how they’d be forced to run silent as they were hunted. Something as simple as dropping loose change on the deck could lead to the whole sub being sunk. He felt a brief comradery with those ancient warriors as Argo slinked through space.

Readings flew across the holo-tank. He could get the same info through his IOR, but he’d disabled that feature. If this ended in a fight, he didn’t think it was a good idea to have his vision obscured with data.

He tried to look on the bright side with what he was seeing. So far, they’d only spotted an oversized squadron of battlecruisers, about the same amount of cruisers, and a plethora of destroyers. There were less than thirty enemy ships in the system, but he knew it would take three of four times that many Commonwealth ships to dislodge them.

<If that’ll even do it?> He wondered.

Lee had reported some weird readings on the splitstream generator after the team had been transported to the planet. They’d received tight-beam communication from several team members that they’d been displaced upon arrival, and some members hadn’t even checked in at all. He couldn’t help but think of Jacobi, who hadn’t checked in, but he forced that worry to the back of his mind. One wrong move and he’d be a finely-dispersed cloud of matter floating in the void.

That thought held his attention for a few moments until Amber chimed in. “We’re clear,” the ship’s AI informed. “Turnover will begin in two hours and fifteen minutes. Turnover will be completed in sixteen hours and seven minutes, and it will be another seventy-seven hours for us to complete our second pass.” Their path to come at the planet from a different direction was laid out on the holo-tank.

That was the problem with surveilling planets. Planets were spheres, and with the Windsor’s own stealth tech, or their ship’s simply being on idle in orbit, even Argo’s sensors could only get a good look at no more than fifty percent of the planet at a time. It required another white-knuckled ride through the enemy space to get a full picture.

He just hoped it wasn’t any worse. It was already going to take a substantial commitment of force to dislodge the enemy from the orbitals and the planet itself. Ben didn’t know the full situation on the ground. He was supposed to get those reports during the second pass.

<And after the beating we took…> he left the thought unfinished.

He seriously doubted the fleet would commit a powerful force to commit suicide if his scouting report painted a bleak picture. They might even be holding off until some of the new tech was installed on existing warships. As most jerry-rigged attempts went, those ships wouldn’t be one hundred percent, but it was going to be a while before fully-integrated ships were in the construction queues.

All he could do was groan and strap in for the long ride back to the planet and their planned rendezvous. Hopefully, the SRRT would have better news, and Jacobi was ok.

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

When Coop regained consciousness he felt only a tinge of pain in his side accompanied by a whole lot of soreness. The soreness quickly receded to numbness as something was sprayed on the area and went to work.

He squinted into the bright light of the operating room and groaned. To call it an operating room was to stretch the meaning of the word. It looked like a room in an old, abandoned factory, which was scrubbed with antiseptic chemicals, and had sterile sheets laid on a table. When they carted him in, GYSGT Cunningham reassured him he had the best surgeon on the planet that was going to operate on him. Since surgery was nearly universally done by infallible machines, that could conduct a procedure precisely down to measurements so small Coop didn’t even know their names, the fact that a human was going to do the operation was a wake-up call.

Human surgeons were archaic. The modern human surgeon was more of a programmer and technician with intricate knowledge of the human body. They could go in and make on-the-spot adjustments to the machines, but by and large, machines still did the work. Human error was the cause of a large percentage of surgical deaths before technology took over and eliminated that risk.

“Take it slow.” The man, dressed all in white with gloves and a mask, instructed. “The skin grafts should hold, and the bone reconstruction is still setting. You’ll be on light duty for at least a few days while everything sets, but no combat during that time.”

<Sure, I’ll just tell the enemy I have a note from my doctor so they’ll take it easy on me,> Coop had to try really hard not to roll his eyes. The doctor might be good, but he clearly had no idea the situation Coop was in beyond medical. Tunnel vision seemed to be a thing with people who were really good in their field.

“Sure thing, Doc,” Coop stepped off the table and hid a wince as he started moving toward the door.

The surgical gown was so small it only reached the middle of his quad, left his ass hanging out, and would ride up to show off his junk if he stretched his arm over his head. So, naturally he did that the moment he got into the hallway. A few of the resistance fighters’ eyes bulged as they glanced in his direction.

“Hey, how’s it going,” he greeted them like they were in line for chow. “Do you know where the Gunney is? She’s almost as big as me and looks like she’s been chewing on a chunk of asteroid for fun.”

One of the fighters, a woman who was fiercely blushing, pointed down a hallway. “Thanks,” Coop winked at her and went for a stroll.

There were no windows in the headquarters facility, so it was clearly underground, which was why people always called insurgents and rebellions underground movements. After having been in space for longer than he preferred, Coop missed the open space he’d been trekking when he arrived. Even if that had ended with him nearly getting his ass blown off. If he had to choose between survival and living in a cave, the cave won every time.

The facility wasn’t large, which was concerning. One good strike and the whole rebellion would get taken out, including little, old Coop, but it made it easier to find the GYSGT.

<Oh…you’ve got to be shitting me!> Coop pushed through an unguarded double door and into the nexus of the command center.

Whatever the facility used to be, this was the old command room, and it was at least a century or two behind the times. Physical monitors adorned the walls instead of holo-tanks. Bundles of cords snaked around the room connecting everything. All it would take was someone tripping over something at just the wrong moment and a whole mission could go to hell in a handbasket. Coop at least expected to see someone guarding the brains of the operation, but no one even challenged his half-naked ass when he strolled right in.

“All it would take was one die-hard Windsor to blow you all straight to hell,” he didn’t even hide his contempt as his eyes swept the room.

“Who the hell are you?” A young man stepped forward.

Coop dearly hoped this guy wasn’t running the show. He didn’t look like he was out of his twenties, and looked like he should be painting tourists in a park not running a revolution. Coop could tell from twenty meters away that the guy was soft.

“Sergeant Cooper. Who the hell are you?”

“Masha Kulikov,” the man didn’t elaborate about his role.

“Cooper,” the GYSGT approached on his left. “Glad you’re up and about.”

“I feel like I took a trip through the Grinder, but nothing I can’t shake.” Coop’s eyes were still locked with Masha’s.

“Good, over here,” the GYSGT either didn’t notice the dick measuring contest going on, or just didn’t care. Coop followed her, and to his dismay, so did Masha.

Standing around a large computer display was the SGM and Sullivan. Eve, Mike, SSG Hightower, and LT Wentworth were all missing, and judging by his team member’s faces, presumed captured.

“Fuck,” Coop exhaled as he joined what was left of his team.

“Yeah, not a great day for the SRRT concept,” the SGM looked more tired than Coop had ever seen him. “But let’s get our shit together and press forward,” he gave Coop an up-down look. “Maybe you want to put on your pants for this.”

“Yeah,” Masha scoffed from where he’d taken his position next to the SGM. “While you’ve been sleeping, we’ve been planning.”

“Sorry about that,” Coop accepted the CMU’s Sullivan offered him. “Next time you take on over a hundred Windsor soldiers, with heavy weapons support and an attached mortars section, by yourself, we can compare notes and discuss how you died a quick death and I made it out alive,” Coop shot back.

Masha bristled, but didn’t have anything to say to that, which confirmed Coop’s suspicions. Even if this kid was a leader of the rebellion, he hadn’t seen much fighting, so Coop didn’t care if the guy had a few years on him. Where it counted, Coop had the experience.

“Eyes front, Cooper,” the SGM admonished him without really admonishing him. “We need to get our shit together so this’ll work.”

“What’s the op?” Coop ignored Masha and focused on a map.

“We’re going to get our people and start off this revolution with a real bang.” The SGM grinned.

Coop had never really seen the hardened NCO grin about something before, so he knew right away the Windsor’s were totally, and royally fucked.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 247

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Argo, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop felt the transition in his bones, but he just shrugged it off. He’d been too busy chuckling. He’d seen Ben, and then not too much later, the LT come out of his cabin. He wasn’t sure if the two were trying to keep their relationship on the down-low, but if they were it was the ship’s worse kept secret. Everyone knew the skipper and LT were doing to no-pants dance.  Hell, half the crew probably knew Eve and him were doing the same. Although, they’d only had time for a quickie in a cramped engineering space since leaving Thurgood Station. It wasn’t exactly what Coop was promised when he agreed to her terms.

As Coop watched the LT pass before she entered the bridge, he couldn’t help but stare. She was a good-looking woman, but despite that, he didn’t find his glance lingering on the curve of her ass. That was a first for him.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t into her. Coop was into all women. He’d been with women of every color, even unnatural colors that were popular at certain brothels on certain planets. He’d been with big women, small women, enhanced women, and natural women. Hell, he’d even been with woman who’d spliced on anatomical bits to themselves to increase their allure.

<I guess I’m just into a ‘blondes who can crush my head with their thighs’ phase,> he grinned.

After the transition, the LT reappeared. “Briefing in the armory in five, you’re relieved,” she ordered. He was cool with that. He was tired of standing around.

By the time he got to the armory, half of the team was already starting to suit up in their new LACS. Weapons were being issued, checked, and double-checked by SSG Hightower, the team’s armorer, and then the soldier themselves. Like always, Eve was close to the front of the line.

Coop had to wait in line to return the weapons and armor he’d been issued for guard duty before going to his charger and struggling into his LACS. Then, he had to get back in line to be issued his new weapons and load out.

He was glad when the SSG told him to step on the auto-loader and open his ports. The machinery whirring was a comfortable sound as his full complement of artillery rounds was placed in his internal magazines. It soon became obvious that the LACS were being overloaded with everything the SSRT could get their hands on. Not only did he have an area shield generator, but he also had a backup, a grav-sled was being loaded with extra ammunition, and even a portable 100mm mortar tube. The last seemed a little redundant. In the end, he was responsible for hundreds of thousands of rounds along with enough medical supplies to sustain a company.

“We’ll be meeting up with resistance leaders when we arrive on planet,” the SGM explained why they were stripping the armory clean. “They need weapons and supplies for their insurgency. Since they are our people, even if they don’t like us that much, we’re coming to their aid. They’ll be able to give us the lay of the land, current intel, and provide targets of opportunity. It will be up to leadership’s discretion whether or not we’ll engage in combat operations against the Windsor’s, but we’ll be ready if we do. Questions?”

The few questions that were asked revealed that everything was situation-dependent. Despite the intel download that had been transmitted from Argo, it became abundantly clear that there was more unknown than known about Harper’s Junction.

When the brief Q&A was completed, the SRRT shuffled, bent, and maneuvered themselves in the cramped, too-small corridors down to the Splitstream room. Once there, they were told to wait.

{Hey,} he opened a link with Eve. {Is it me, or do we not seem to have enough intel on our own planet?}

{Harper’s Junction has always been passively hostile to the Commonwealth. They even passed laws to have a meager Infantry contingent, and no Fleet forces guarding the planet. I guess they thought their isolation was their biggest protection. They guessed wrong.}

{And now we’ve got to go in and sneak around to figure out what’s going on.} His frustration translated through the IOR.

{Coop,} Eve had that tone she always did when she was going to start a lecture. {This is what the SRRT teams are built for. We’re the only people physically and mentally capable of making the instantaneous transition from point to point. We’re always going to be going into situations where we don’t know enough, and have to figure it out for the follow-on forces. That’s the job. Get used to it.} She was clearly in no-nonsense mode, so he quit his bitching. Call it a high school cliche, but he didn’t want to be arguing with his girlfriend on the night of the big dance. “Dance” being the million-plus kilometer travel into hostile territory after atomic disassembly, digitization, and reassembly.

Call him old fashioned, but Coop liked to know what he was stepping into.

At some point, they crossed an invisible line in space where splitstream was now a go.  One team at a time, they stepped onto the raised platforms. Coop couldn’t help but think he looked like an idiot. He had extra materials strapped to every centimeter of his armor. He’d be able to disassemble everything and get in into the folded up grav-sled currently magnetized to his left hamstring when he arrived. That of course meant he didn’t drop into shits creek where he would be screwed six ways to Sunday.

“Alpha Team, ready,” the SGM stood on the forward-most platform. He was similarly laden down with supplies, but not as bad as Coop. The V4A was the pack mule after all.

The LT gave him a thumbs up and Coop was immediately overcome with the numb sensation of being instantaneously transmitted through space.  The landing wasn’t much smoother than when he arrived back on the Hegemony planet. It still felt like he’d been punched in the nards, but there was an odd tingling sensation in in his face. He could have sworn it felt like someone hooked his inner ear like an angler and gave him a good yank during the nearly instantaneous journey, but all sensations from the trip were already faded. <At least I kept my meal down.>

He gave himself a full body shake while his LACS’ sensors took in the LZ. That was when he got the first error.

Since Harper’s Junction was a former Commonwealth world, it had been fully mapped. With this intel, they’d carefully chosen the SRRT’s insertion point so they could quickly link up with friendly forces. From the error message displayed on Coop’s HUD, he was out of position by several hundred kilometers. That was 242 kilometers to be exact, and those 242 kilometers were in the direction of the capital city, currently occupied by the Windsor’s army. Even worse, he wasn’t picking up any friendlies on his IOR’s bandwidth. That meant no one was in vicinity of the unit’s twenty-five-kilometer radius, or within five hundred kilometer of the military-grade boosters each of them had strapped to their backs.

<We really need to upgrade our planets with these new networks,> he grumbled. New tech was good, but at someone point it became a hindrance.

If there was any good news, it was that he wasn’t inside the gradually expanding perimeter that army was creating, but it wasn’t by much. He could pick up the edges of their active sensor scans only a few kilometers away. Appearing in the middle of a cornfield wasn’t helping him either. The corn stalks were high, but not higher than a V4 LACS.

He hurriedly crouched down and hoped no one had seen him. His arrival had flattened the crops for a few meters in each direction, but no one would notice until they physically came upon it.

<Why can’t anything work out the way it’s fucking supposed to.> He grumbled as he went through his contingency options.

They weren’t many. He needed to go to ground and send out an encrypted, sporadic signal that he hoped the rest of the team would notice. Then he needed to send a tight beam to Argo, at the prearranged time, that he’d missed the LZ. Or, he needed to move to the rendezvous. He went with option two, while still prepping a transmission to the ship. It had to be fired off at the exact right moment, and from a precise angle, or the gunship would miss it entirely. He set his LACS’ AI, something new that he hadn’t trained with at all, to that task.

He was too close to the city for comfort, but moving almost 250 kilometers with all the crap he was carrying was going to be tough. At the very least, he needed to wait for nightfall.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 246

Benjamin Gold

Location: Argo, United Commonwealth of Colonies

{It’s time to wake up…It’s time to wake up…} A high-pitched, shrill voice announced in Ben’s head repeatedly.

The alarm clock was one of mankind’s worst inventions. It was right up there with splitting the atom. With the advent of the IOR, the next generation of alarm clocks had taken shape, and they were an even greater pain in the ass. Ben had heard some of the troopers bitching, but now that he’d experienced it for himself, he finally understood the IOR was a dual-edged sword.

With a loud yawn, he acknowledged that he was awake and rolled out of bed. As he did so, his hand gently caressed Jacobi’s thigh in passing. She stirred slightly but didn’t wake.

As the Captain, his cabin was the most luxurious on the ship. Since the ship was only 125 meters long, that meant he couldn’t fully stretch his arms out to either side without hitting the opposite bulkheads. Since he was 220 centimeters, and had an impressive wingspan, that meant he at least had enough room to move around in, or in this case, share a bed.

The bed was rated for HI troopers, so it was long enough to accommodate him and Jacobi. They were still they were sleeping nut to butt, which wasn’t normally an issue, but it normally led to one waking the other when they went onto duty.

<We don’t get to spend enough time together.> Ben sighed as he stepped into the small, adjacent shower.

A small amount of water and powerful bursts of air cleaned him up. A cheap nano-gel, popular with soldiers, quickly ate the stubble off his face. He had to be careful to make sure it didn’t get anywhere else. One previous misapplication had led to a bald spot on his chest that Jacobi called adorable, but he thought was embarrassing.

Cleaned and ready, he donned his CMUs and stepped back into his larger cabin. Jacobi was softly snoring on the bed, which she’d promptly sprawled across. He just stood there for a moment and watched. He smiled at the way she’d tangled her legs in the sheets, how her normally-controlled, raven-black was fanned chaotically across the pillows, and how her mouth was slightly open and drops of drool had slowly formed a wet spot overnight. He knew he wasn’t getting as much time as he wanted with her, but some was better than nothing, which was what most unmarried people in the military had to deal with.

<Marriage would fix that…wait…where did that come from!> He went from happy and content to confused and anxious in a moment.

Where unmarried soldiers didn’t stand a chance in hell in being assigned together, married soldiers had the bureaucracy working in their favor. It wasn’t a guarantee, as everything was still needs of the service, but regulations required the human resources personnel to make every available effort to station spouses together; especially if they had kids.

Ben knew he loved her, and he was sure she loved him, but neither of their careers were conducive to marriage. Thankfully, a buzzing sound in his head announced an incoming message, and stopped that thought process.

{On my way.} He sent his reply and stepped out of his cabin, but not before giving her a peck on the cheek. He could at least give her that.

“Hello, Coop.” He greeted the man guarding the bridge, and the only other man he knew of that was in a disclosed relationship aboard his ship.

When the SGM had come to Ben with the news that the two SGTs were in a relationship, he was more than surprised. Coop always seemed like the ‘never settle down’ type, but Eve Berg had an aura about her. <If anyone could do it, she could.> He thought at the time.

“Sir,” It took a second for Coop to respond and brace to attention.

Ben knew he was probably watching something on his IOR, another downside about the new technology, but he’d let it pass. There was nothing going on aboard the ship at the moment, and just standing in a corridor for several hours had to be boring as hell.

“As you were.” Ben waved him off and entered the bridge.

PO3 Lee was on duty. As the only two naval personnel onboard Argo, one of them had to be on the bridge at all time. It was a rough watch rotation, and he was about to start his twelve hours. As the skipper, he had the privilege to choose his shift, and he took the 0600 to 1800 one. However, Lee needed to stay around for another few minutes.

“Transition in ten minutes, Sir.” She fought back a yawn, but didn’t succeed.

Argo was currently rocketing through FTL under her Alcubierre drive. Portaling might be the means of travel for the future, but there were no QE buoys for the gunship to lock onto. Argo was forced to travel to the nearest linked system, and then hop toward its destination under the older drives. They’d had to resupply their exotic fuel twice on classified asteroid storage facilities, but now they were almost to their destination.

Harper’s Junction was in the ass-end of nowhere. He didn’t see any strategic importance to it, which meant the Windsor’s knew something the Commonwealth didn’t. While the SRRT was infiltrating the planet, it was his job to find out what that was.

“Give me the latest readings, Amber.” Ben queried the ship’s AI, and the data appeared in front of his eyes. He quickly scanned it and saw everything was in the green.

The gluon power plants had been reduced to their lowest power setting, with all of that power being directed to making Argo look like a hole in space. The naval intelligence people had no idea how good the Windsor’s scanning tech was, but they’d wisely assumed it was at least as good, and probably better than, their own. With that in mind, he was doing everything in his power to not be seen.

He made sure their transition back into normal space took place in the outer system, far beyond the limited infrastructure in the system’s one asteroid belt, and behind a massive gas giant to boot. It was the stealthiest arrival he could plan, and unless the enemy had a ship placed to cover that area, he would be fine. The infinite vastness of space, even in a single star system, played to his advantage here. That and there was no way a comprehensive drone network could have been established to cover even one percent of the outer system since Harper’s Junction had fallen. That was assuming the Windsor’s even had the resources to do so, which considering their large-scale offensive…

He stopped himself before he could go back down that rabbit hole. He’d thought about all of this during the planning phase of the operation. In conjuncture with Jacobi, the SGM, the naval intelligence spook that briefed them back on Thurgood Station, and Argo itself through Amber, they’d all agreed this was the best plan. He took a deep breath and reminded himself of that.

He was just about back to normal when a hand grabbed his butt and gave it a firm squeeze. Since a skipper jumping out of his CMUs on his own bridge was undignified, he didn’t even wince. He just looked over his shoulder into the mischievous grin of Jacobi. At least she’d surprised him. She’d only made it to bed a few hours ago.

She read the question off his face. “If on the off chance there is a destroyer waiting for us and blows us to stardust before we know what’s happened, I’d rather be on my feet than asleep in my bunk.”

Ben accepted the rationale. He wouldn’t want to just go to sleep and never wake up, but by the way she was grinning, he knew she had something else on her mind. From the ass grab, the way she was standing close to him, and the look in her eye, he could tell she wanted to do something. She was about to take her team onto a hostile planet where she could very well not come back from. She wanted to do something life affirming, and nothing quite did that like boning.

He had heard rumors of people screwing during a transition.  The somewhat violent conversion from FTL to normal space caused several reaction in the human body. He barely noticed it anymore since he’d been doing it for so long. It was a great way to get a release if you were stopped up, was one thing he’d heard, but never tried. Then there was the Transition Club. Apparently, it had evolved from sex on airplanes before humanity ventured into space and outside the Sol System, but as humanity spread, so did the tradition.

He guessed, if Jacobi had her way, that she’d want to join the Transition club. He was more than willing to participate, but they both knew they couldn’t. The whole, transitioning into a hostile system took precedence.

<Needs of the service.> Ben grumbled as the clock ticked down and the eventually entered Harper’s Junction.

Just to let her know he understood where she was coming from, he made sure to give her a small pinch on the ass at the moment of transition. If they were blown out of space, he was comfortable with that being his last act.

With that thought, Ben knew he was in trouble when it came to Lieutenant Jacobi Wentworth. He’d been with many women, even thought he’d loved a few, but they all fell far short of the warrior woman standing next to him on his bridge.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 239

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Planet beneath The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude, Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings

 

“We’ve got to push left!” Coop ducked behind some kind of trash can as incoming rounds smacked against the crappy masonry around them.

As the number of enemy tentacle creatures increased, so did the volume of fire they were able to pour into the field generators Coop and Mike were carrying. The portable shields were better than sliced bread in Coop’s opinion, but they weren’t perfect. When concentrated fire was put on a spot it broke down the energy’s integrity and allowed stuff to get through. For the tentacle assholes’ tiny projectile weapons, that amounted to thousands of rounds a second, but when you had several thousand of them closing in on you from all directions even a moron could coordinate that fire.

Add to the rounds getting through their shield and their lack of armor, the SRRT also had to deal with the improvised barriers the enemy was throwing in their path. They had the diplomat’s beacon reading loud and clear now, and he was less than half a kilometer away. Crossing that half kilometer was turning into a shit show as every street intersection they came upon had an improvised road block thrown up…and on fire.

“We’re running out of streets, Cooper,” the SGM grunted, but didn’t yell. If anything, the NCOIC was cool under fire.

Coop knew from his IOR that the SGM was posted up against a building less than twenty meters from him. The whole team had been condensed down to a thirty meter perimeter to maximize the shield’s integrity. Sullivan and Mike were with him while Eve and GYSGT Cunningham were sticking close to Coop. The snap of Eve’s rifle going off less than a meter from Coop’s ear told him there was one less Squid out there to worry about.

“You’re seeing what I’m seeing, Sergeant Major!” Coop was a little less composed than his leader.

The Squid’s road block was random crap piled up about a meter and a half high and then set on fire with some rancid chemical concoction. Even from fifty meters away, the things smelled like asses – plural – because one ass just didn’t do the smell any justice. The last thing Coop wanted to do was get any closer to that steaming inferno of shit.

“We’ve already got to double back as is, and time is of the essence. They know we’re here, so they might just kill our guy and bury him in a shallow grave. We need to get there now.” The SGM relayed as a series of waypoints appeared on Coop’s IOR. It was a battle plan and a route to get to the diplomat all rolled into one. “On my command we punch through this barrier and push forward.” The SGM said it like he was inviting the whole team to brunch. “Three…two…one…execute!”

Four HE grenades exited Busses and impacted the barrier like the wrath of the Squid’s sea god. It blew the barrier, and anything within ten meters of it, into even more finely dispersed rancid shit. Coop ducked behind his cover to avoid the debris, but some still fell down on his back. He tried not to gag as he got to his feet and pushed forward.

There was no resistance getting to the former roadblock, or to the corner beyond that, but once they rounded the corner they came under renewed fire. Judging from the volume the Squids sounded pissed. The whole world in front of the team seemed to blue-out as the shield flared from thousands of incoming rounds. Coop dove for cover, which wasn’t remotely fun or graceful with the heavy generator on his back, but it saved his life.

“Shit!” {Shit!} The exclamation came through Coop’s ears and then his mind.

“Sullivan’s down,” the LT relayed with a little more emotion in her voice than the SGM. “It was in and out clear through his leg. Nanites will repair the artery and I’ve got him from there.” The LT might be the OIC, but everyone, including her, knew this was the SGM’s show.

“Gunney, I need you to take Alpha and make a path. We need to go two hundred meters and then make a right at the intersection. The diplomat’s beacon is in the third building on the right.” All of the SGM’s orders had been in the battle plan he’d relayed through the IOR, but it was a new way to communicate, and sometimes old habits took over.

“Cooper, you and me are on grenades. Berg, I want you to switch weapons to something with a higher rate of fire. If these fuckers rush us I don’t want them on top of Cooper and me before we can switch ammunition.”

She gave them ten seconds to lock and load before standing up and firing a three-round-burst of HE grenades at the enemy. Coop followed her lead, but aimed ten meters farther. They alternated back and forth to turn the whole street into a kill zone. The Squids might be stupid by Hegemony standards, but no one is that stupid. They gave up shooting for pot shots and charged.

Eve went down to one knee for better stability and let the Buss do the work. On full auto it was a buzz saw. Where bullets had trouble penetrating the shield, slow moving creatures did not, and the Squids poured through the blue barrier only to be chewed up and spit back out.

“Reloading,” Eve informed what felt like seconds later.

Coop and the GYSGT, who’d taken cover while Eve butchered the ETs, popped back out and started lobbing grenades. The Squids tried another charge, but by then Eve was ready for them.

“Coming up on your six,” the SGM informed as Bravo team trotted up behind them when they reached the intersection. “They tried to hit us with charges from behind at the same time. I think they thought they could catch us by surprise.” The SGM shook his head at the ET’s tactical blunder.

All around them it looked like someone had blown up a warehouse full of rotten sushi. Dead Squids covered every centimeter of space. Coop and the rest of the SRRT were squishing their corpses underfoot as they advanced.

“Ok, it should be the third building on the right,” the LT glanced around the corner and immediately pulled back as more rounds punched into the shield right in front of her face. “How’re those shields doing, Cooper, Enders?”

Coop hadn’t checked the generator in what felt like hours, but was actually minutes. “We’re down to forty percent, ma’am.” As if on cue, something big hit the shield and dropped it three percent.

“They’ve got plasma weapons!” The SGM yelled out. “This must be their HQ where all the big guns are located.”

More rounds started to land on top of the shield and dropped its battery life even further. “Fuck they’ve got mortars!” Coop exclaimed as he looked around for cover. The problem was that there wasn’t any.

Sure there were the ramshackle dwellings the Squids called home, but those didn’t protect them from overhead bombardment. The only thing keeping the SRRT alive was the quickly dwindling shield.

“Close ranks!” The LT ordered the exact opposite of what you were supposed to do when under indirect fire. Coop was about to politely educate her on this fact, but she beat him to it. “I know it sounds bat-shit crazy, but do it. I want us close together to maximize our shield protection. Once we’re close I want Cooper’s shield to form an outer layer protecting us. Enders, you collapse your shield bubble to form an interior layer. That way when Cooper’s fails yours will still be ready. Hell, it might even have a few minutes to recharge.”

Coop shut his mouth after the LT explained her decision. It was smart, and Coop kicked himself for not thinking about it. Despite the clever use of the shields, it only bought them a few more minutes to live. The mortars kept pounding away at them, and if they stuck their heads out into the next street, heavy plasma weapons would open up on them. Coop didn’t even know if they’d make the target house before those weapons chewed through their shields and cooked them all. Then the Squids would get to feast on BBQ human for the first time.

“We need to get rid of those heavy plasma cannons,” Coop said more to himself as he peeked around the corner.

The Squid at the controls saw Coop and took a shot. The weapon took out the building Coop had been hiding behind, and another few percent of the shield’s power as Coop scrambled backwards. It wasn’t for nothing. His IOR had mapped the cannon’s location inside the cover of another residence at the other end of the street over a hundred meters away.

“No shit, Sherlock, and how about you keep your head down!” Eve grabbed Coop by the scruff of his CMU’s so he wouldn’t do something stupid again.

The gesture was surprisingly protective and intimate given their situation, but Coop didn’t have time to think about it. He needed to figure out how to stay alive. The answer turned out to be simple. It was the same thing a team would do if they were taking indirect fire in any other situation. The real issue was, would it work in this diplomatically sensitive instance.

{Argo, this is Ballboy, call for fire, over.} The only way Coop could do it was over his IOR. Thanks to their command features, the LT, GYSGT, and SGM all snapped their heads in his direction. The LT opened her mouth to say something, but the SGM put his hand on her shoulder and shook his head.

The meaning was clear. It was the right tactical decision. In fact, the SGM had already thought about it, but bringing it up to Argo and the non-warriors in charge of this diplomatic mission was something else altogether. Coop had made the call, so it was Coop’s ass on the line. Coop was surprised the SGM was covering his ass like that, the NCOIC didn’t strike Coop as that type of person. Then the SGM met Coop’s gaze, and Coop knew that wasn’t the case. Coop had simply beaten him to the punch, and despite the shit situation they were in, Coop couldn’t help but beam with pride.

<Maybe I really am pretty good at this soldiering thing after all.>

{Coop, is that you?} Aiko’s voice popped into his mind. {What the hell is going on down there?}

Coop and the team had been out of contact with the ship since the start of the mission. There was supposed to be a communications blackout because this was a never-even-happened black op, but everyone probably got a little nervous when their LACS beacons went offline.

{No time!} Coop’s irritation leaked out over the transmission, but that was because another round of mortars landed on their heads and dropped his shield below thirty percent. {I need a fire mission at these coordinates.} Coop sent the information his IOR had gathered. {I need a tight-beam burst from Argo’s energy cannons, one hundred meters, from here to here. The big gun we need taken out is here, but the drag is going to take out any opposition between us and where the hostage is being held.}

{What the hell are you talking about? Stop fucking around, Coop.} Aiko’s disdain was coming over loud and clear.

This was not the time and place, and when another round of mortars fell on them, because the enemy had them zeroed, Coop snapped. {Aiko, I need you to pull your head out of your ass right now. This isn’t me fucking around. We’re sitting ducks here. If you do not authorize this call for fire the team is going to fucking die – D.E.D. dead. I know you hate my guts, and I think you’re being a bitch, but it doesn’t fucking matter. Order the fucking strike now or pass me to Gold!}

{I’m here, Sergeant.} The LCDR sounded like he wasn’t sure his IOR was working.

{Thank you, Sir.} Coop reassured him. {Now can we get that fire mission rolling?}

{I’ve passed it up to the Minister. She’s in command of the overall mission, not me. It’s her call.} The LCDR’s response didn’t fill Coop with optimism.

{Anything else you want to get off your chest while you’re at it, Cooper?} The LT asked as the wait dragged on and things continued to explode all around them.

{Yes, ma’am. You need to pay me more.} Coop deadpanned. It took a second, but then Eve chuckled, Mike grunted acknowledgement, and even Sullivan chimed in and seconded the motion.

Even the GYSGT suggested some type of increased hazard pay for the SRRT team. They were discussing how much when the LCDR got back to them.

{Fire mission approved. Argo is moving into position, ETA three minutes.} By divine intervention the diplomat had been taken hostage almost directly below where they’d been staying in the Golden City, or else it could have taken more than an hour for Argo to get into position. That was time they didn’t have, and even three minutes was cutting it close.

Coop’s shield failed before Argo fired. The entire SRRT team, one of twenty, qualified and trained teams on the latest and greatest tech in the Commonwealth, was huddled together where a simple frag grenade could have killed them all. Then, a blinding flash lit the sky and the ground bucked beneath them. Atmosphere did a lot to disperse beam weapons, so they were nowhere as deadly as they were in space, but the newly-upgraded energy cannons on Argo were more than enough to cut through the flimsy materials in the Hegemony PHA, and the even more flimsy Squids living in them.

The loud explosion of the heavy plasma cannon being destroyed at the end of the street was all the motivation the team needed.

“MOVE!” The LT led the charge up and across the street to the target house. The street below them was nearly bubbling from the energy dissipation, and the charged corpses of the Squids caught in the line of fire crumbled into ash as they SRRT rushed to stack against the door. “Go!” The LT kicked down the door and peeled away to cover their six.

Coop was the first through, and his Buss spit out plasma-tipped rounds at the space filled with stunned Squids. A few seconds later the space looked like a slaughter house, and any Squid that was still alive was slithering for safety.

“He’s beneath us. Find the stairs!” The SGM was one of the last in the building as Coop and company went from room to room exterminating the remaining enemy.

Eve ended up finding the stairs, but they weren’t stairs at all. It looked like some sort of gelatinous goo. You stepped in it and it sunk down or propelled up depending on the floor you were on. It took the SRRT team members thirty tedious seconds to get from one floor to the other. Coop suspected that the Squids could swim through the liquid and move faster, which was why he stood guard when Eve descended behind him.

The downstairs consisted of a long corridor and a single door. Coop’s IOR registered that the door was thicker at the far end, but that a grenade would do the trick. It did. The grenade, one of Coop’s last ones, blasted apart the door, and Coop followed the blast of shrapnel into the room. What he saw ended up seared in his memory.

There were a handful of Squids, but unlike the Squids he’d dealt with so far, these ones moved slower and had a slightly duller color to their bodies. Coop guessed it had to deal with age, and he might as well be facing the Squids’ council of elders. Not that Coop gave two shits.

One of the squids was attached to the restrained diplomat’s body. The man’s eyes were bulging as the Squid had a tentacle stuffed in his throat and both nostrils. Coop didn’t know if the Squids were torturing the man for information by suffocating him, or if they were throat-fucking him, and he didn’t stop to ask. His sector of fire didn’t contain the diplomat, so he concentrated on blasting his handful of old Squids. They moved slower, were easier to track, and Coop painted the walls with their blood. When he turned around, Eve had one hand on the Squid covering the diplomat’s face, and the other was using her combat knife to cut the thing to pieces. Finally, the thing died and sloshed to the ground.

<You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.> Coop couldn’t hide his displeasure at seeing the diplomat who’d been captured was the same fucktard from Argo who ordered Coop to switch bunks with him.

<Sullivan took a bullet for this waste of oxygen.> Coop grimaced, and promised himself to double down on the extra hazard duty pay plan when he got back to the ship.

{Argo, this is Wentworth. Jackpot…I say again…jackpot. Immediate extraction would be most appreciated.}

Immediate wasn’t totally immediate. The splitstream tech needed space and specific dimensions to work within, so it took nearly twenty minutes for them to find an LZ and to get streamed back to Argo.

As they waited, Coop thought it was weird the Squids didn’t press their attack. He didn’t argue with their decision not to. He just found it odd they gave up so easily.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 236

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude, Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings

 

“I can’t believe this,” Eve fumed as she led the way back into the collection of suites the human delegation had been assigned.

“I know! What fucknut thought this was a good idea?” Coop replied just as the remainder of the room came into view.

Clustered around a holo was the SGM, Minister of Commerce, the LT, and LCDR Gold. Judging by the glare being directed at Coop, the fucknut in question was the Minister. Thankfully, Coop had people looking out for him.

“On me,” GYSGT Cunningham yanked Coop by the shoulder into the opposite room where the rest of the SRRT was huddled.

“Whew…dodged a bullet there,” Coop wiped his forehead and grinned.

“More like you’re going to take an energy cannon up the ass in the near future,” Eve replied. “That woman is one of the most powerful in the Commonwealth, and you just called her a fucknut.”

Coop took a moment to think about that and shrugged. In terms of strategic use of resources, Coop knew they couldn’t do a whole lot against him. The infantry and fleet needed people who were Splitstream capable in their SRRT teams. So far, there were not a lot of active personnel with those genetic and psychological adaptions, of those who did they needed to evaluate those that could work on a tier one team, and then they needed those people to volunteer. Out of the millions of people in the Infantry, Coop was one of a few hundred who’d joined the new project. Calling a Minister a bad name wasn’t going to get him booted off the team and onto some shit duty…he thought.

“What happened?” Mike was in the room, and it didn’t look like Bravo had been brought up to speed on the situation.

The GYSGT brought them up to speed, and Mike just shook his head. “That was stupid.”

At that moment the SGM, LT, and LCDR burst into the room; thankfully, without the Minister. “This is your WARNO.” The SGM cut straight to it. “The situation is as follows. While conducting diplomatic reconnaissance…” Coop struggled to hold in his laughter at the SGM’s description, “… one of the diplomatic team was abducted by one of the other alien races in the city. Per protocol, he activated his panic button. We had a good track on him until we lost signal here.” Instead of a holo-map of the city, the SGM pulled up a map of the planet below. “All members of the Alpha and Bravo excpet for one individual will participate in this rescue operation. Staff Sergeant Hightower, you will keep the rest of the diplomats locked down until we resolve the situation.”

If the SSG was unhappy about not participating in the operation he didn’t show it. He just said, “Yes, Sergeant Major” like a good NCO.

“Enemy forces are unknown, but we believe we’ve identified the species that took out man.” The SGM popped up to a new image, and Coop recognized the tentacle creatures from the bar earlier. “Our mission, is for Alpha and Bravo to covertly travel to the planet’s surface, recover our abducted diplomat, and make a general statement to those involved about fucking with the human race being a bad idea.” The SGM’s statement got some smiles around the table.

“Sergeant Major, would it be more diplomatic to alert the Hegemonic authorities to the abduction and request their assistance in returning the kidnapped diplomat?” Eve asked.

Coop thought it was a reasonable question. After all, why should they risk their asses to save the fucknut who got kidnapped by a group of calamari.

“That’s a no go, Sergeant,” LCDR Gold stepped forward and the SGM yielded the brief to the senior officer. “There are diplomatic agendas at work. First, we’re a new species in the Hegemony. We’re one day into the talks, and we don’t want one of our first official acts to be asking them for help. We want to be seen as a strong, independent species, and your suggestion goes against that. Second, we can’t be seen as secondary to the species that took the diplomat. Sergeant Major has more on that.”

“Thank you, Sir.” The SGM didn’t look completely thankful for his briefing being interrupted. “The species that took our diplomat, which I will refer to as the Squids from here forward, are very low on the totem pole here and throughout the Hegemony. The one thing they do have going for them is that there are trillions of them. They screw like bunnies and have spread their numbers throughout Hegemonic space. The Squids are an impatient, reckless, and impulsive species according to the data we’ve gathered on them. Most of the squids here in the city are actually slaves. Thus the servitude part of the place’s name.”

“Slaves? Didn’t slavery go out of style a thousand years ago?” Coop wondered out loud.

“No, Sergeant Cooper.” The LT replied a little more heavy handed than Coop thought was necessary. “Pirates and mercenary groups throughout the Commonwealth regularly ambush ships, take people hostage, and turn them into the modern day equivalent of slaves. There are even rumors out there about big corporations running luxury cloning operations and breeding people for physical pleasure. So, while the days of people being whipped as they built pyramids of pick cotton are gone, the practice is still very much alive.”

“Like the LT said, the Squids are victims of their own impulsive nature here.” The SGM brought the conversation back on track. “They love to gamble, and half this city it made up of the alien version of casinos. The Squids bet big, get over their head, and end up paying back the casino owners with their freedom. From what we’ve found out, as delegates we’re living in luxury up in this rarified atmosphere, but most of the Squids reside in the seedy underbelly. Whoever took our diplomat lives down on the planet, which isn’t much more than housing and the necessary suppliers to keep the indentured Squids, and other species who get in over their heads, alive.

“Well,” Coop shrugged. “I would have thought a millennia’s-old galactic collective would be a little more civilized, but who am I to judge. How are we going to kill these fuckers and get out of here clean?” Coop wondered.

“Law enforcement’s patrols of the area where we lost our diplomat’s signal are very infrequent, so we should be able to get in and out without being noticed by the authorities. To put it bluntly, it’s a bad neighborhood.” The SGM replied.

{Brings back memories doesn’t it?} Coop sent Mike a message over his IOR and got an affirmative response.

“Everyone needs to make their way back to Argo so we can finish going over the execution details and depart for the mission,” the SGM powered down the holo and started to move.

“Sergeant Major, don’t you think our hosts will spot our ship leaving? That is going to bring unwanted attention to the mission,” Coop tossed out the flaw he immediately saw in the SGM’s plan.

“Who said we’re taking the ship down, Sergeant.” The SGM didn’t even look back, but Coop could tell he was grinning. Coop didn’t like where this was heading.

Half an hour later Coop was geared up and ready to kick some ass. The team wasn’t taking any chances. They had no idea what they were walking into, and they had no idea of the technological level of the enemy they were about to face.  Just because the Squids were peons in the eyes of other Hegemony species didn’t mean they wouldn’t have weapons that could tear a hole through a LACS. The SGM didn’t want to take any chances.

Coop ran the diagnostic and checked the safety on his Buss for the second time. Usually, he was a one and done type of guy, but the amount of unknowns in this situation didn’t sit well with him. The SGM undoubtedly felt everyone was feeling the same way, so he was compensating for that fear by issuing more grenades to everyone and authorizing the team leaders to ensure some of their team had some real bang bang in their arsenal. Since Coop was in the V4As, that meant he was loading up the LACS’ compliment of seventy artillery shells. The only thing he wasn’t being loaded with was anti-matter ordinance. Setting one of those off would alert the authorities that something wasn’t quite right. Still, Coop had enough thermobaric rounds to turn a small city into a burning husk, and that made him feel a little better.

<Of course, they didn’t help against the Windsor’s.> He remembered the high explosive weapon’s lack of effectiveness against the Kingdom’s massive, armored mechs.

Coop looked at his shield’s readings again to make sure he was one hundred percent good to go. He was, and so was the rest of his team. Everything seemed good to go.

“Coms check,” the SGM stated over TACCOM.

{Coms check,} he reiterated over their IORs.

“Everyone listen up. We’re going to drop here.” A holo of the area they would be dropping into appeared in front of them. “We’ll set up a perimeter, regain our bearings, and then move forward to the diplomat’s last known location here.” He pointed at an area two hundred meters away. “Intel from the Minsters team suggests that the panic button might still be transmitting, but it’s jammed. If we can get close enough then we should be able to pick it up again.”

<That would be lucky of us.> Coop didn’t plan on it being that easy.

The SGM pulled the team leaders aside to take a look at everything. The SGM would be in command of Alpha with the GYSGT in the number two slot, while the LT handled Bravo. SSG Hightower was back with the diplomats, and Coop was sure the big man was pissed. This was the first offensive action against ETs the Commonwealth was going to engage in. Sure, it amounted to engaging their version of PHA Rats, but first was first, and the SSG was missing out.

Coop patted his armor to ensure the grenades were easily accessible and pondered what to arm his Buss with first. Coming out rapid firing 40mm grenades sounded like the best option, but he was sure he’d catch hell for blowing up some poor squid’s fish tank. Instead, he’d opted for 3mm plasma-tipped rounds. They’d still get the job done, and they’d eat at a shield’s energy faster than regular rounds. Coop wasn’t looking forward to going up against a shielding enemy again, but at least this time he was shielded too; twice shielded in fact. Coop was also assigned to carry an area shield which was provide an extra layer of protection for up to twenty-five meters around the team. Mike was carrying another one for Bravo, so if they kept their spacing right they’d give the team an extra bubble of protection.

The downside was the thing was fucking heavy on top of his LACS and all the other crap he was carrying. The V4A was supposed to be the pack mule of the SRRT team, but that didn’t mean it didn’t suck, in fact, the more Coop thought about it the bigger the target he’d be.

<Too late now.> He thought as the SGM waved them forward. The SRRT hunched over, shuffled, and squeezed sideways through Argo’s corridors until they reached one of the off-limit’s areas. LCDR Gold was there waiting for them to scan his GIC and put in a code.

The heavy blast doors opened up to reveal a spacious area…probably the most spacious area on the entire ship. Since Coop had spent three weeks stuffed into infantry country with a bunch of puffed-up bureaucrats, seeing this much empty space didn’t improve his mood. In the center of the empty space were four sets of circles. They were a gleaming silver, slightly raised from the floor, slightly extended from the ceiling, and big enough for a man in a V4A LACS to stand on.

Once Coop caught sight of them he felt his sphincter involuntarily pucker. He knew what these were, and the rest of the SGM’s plan fell into place. The SRRT team was going to live up to its name today. They were going to use splitstream tech for the very first time as far as Coop knew.

<And we’re going to do it on a combat jump into enemy territory to rescue a diplomatic fucknugget. You couldn’t make up this shit.>

“Alpha team onto your launch pads.” The SGM led the way by stepping up onto the nearest dais. Coop gulped and picked one at the back.

LCDR Gold and Aiko took their places at the controls and started pressing buttons and flicking switches. A lot of stuff was being pushed and flicked, so much that Coop hoped they didn’t mess up some sequence and turn him inside out in the process.

“Launching in twenty seconds,” Gold started to countdown while Aiko watched her screen.

She looked up for a second at Coop, but her expression was neutral. He took that as a good thing. One indication either way meant something was wrong or the tech wasn’t going to work on purpose. It was a dark thought, but Coop knew Aiko was capable of doing some harsh shit. Four SRRT members being obliterated in a failed splitstream launch would be easy for her to walk away from even with an investigation.

<Stop it.> Coop chided himself when Gold reached five. <Get your head in the game.>

“…two…one…initiate.” The LCDR did something and Coop’s whole body went numb.

It only lasted for a fraction of a second before feeling returned. Too much feeling. Coop felt like someone had wound up and punted him right in the nards. He immediately started to puke. Through sheer force of will he was able to stop it from spewing out of his mouth, but swallowing it only made him gag more. The only thing that got him through this was not wanting to have puke on his HUD, and that acidic stench in his nose through the whole mission.

“Ok,” the SGM’s voice told Coop that even the NCOIC wasn’t immune to the cosmic forces at work. “Give me three-sixty security and secure the site for Bravo.”

Coop did what he was told while looking around. The area they were in made the PHA look nice. The place was a fucking pigsty. Coop quickly checked the air to see it was barely habitable for humans. There was a lot of sulfur in the atmosphere, so if Coop ever had to take his suit off the whole world would smell like farts.

Coop was looking outward when Bravo arrived. One second his IOR showed them out of range up in the floating city above them, and the next it registered them inside the perimeter Alpha had established. It was creepy, and totally revolutionized warfare. Coop didn’t have time to contemplate the greater strategic picture. He focused on the mission and scanned his sector of fire.

It took thirty seconds for Bravo to get their shit together before the SGM called out the order of march. “Alpha followed by Bravo… bounding overwatch…go.”

An icon appeared on Coop’s HUD showing where the SGM wanted him to go, and he started to move toward it while Bravo covered them. Coop made it about five meters when the whole world suddenly went black.

“What the fuck!” he yelled. He was still conscious, but his LACS had gone dark.

{What the fuck!} he repeated over his IOR, but just like with TACCOM he got nothing.

“Shit,” he whispered to himself before something impacted the side of his LACS hard enough to tip it over.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 234

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude, Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings

“I can get used to this,” Coop made the statement out loud.

He was standing in front of a window that looked out on a spectacular view. The top half was the blackness of space complete with the pinpoints of stars. The bottom portion showed the white clouds, blue seas, and green landmasses of the planet below them. Coop was also in an excellent position to see the planet change from day to night. He could see the light from the system’s yellow dwarf star slowly creeping along the surface, while still catching the breathtaking amount of lights on the night-side. The planet was clearly heavily populated, but the human delegation wouldn’t be going down during this visit.

The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude never touched the planet’s surface. It was suspended in the thermosphere where the atmosphere met space and was held aloft by giant grav drives, or at least that’s what Coop believed. He wasn’t going to see the workings of the city. He did see some supply umbilicals arching down to the surface, but other than that the thing could run on magic for all he knew.

{I still find that creepy.} Eve’s voice sounded in his head as she maintained communication’s discipline.

She was referring to the window itself. They’d learned that the Hegemony used force fields as part of its architectural designs. The room they were in was opulently decorated, but for all intents and purposes open to space except for a centimeter of energy. Coop felt ok because he was still in his LACS, but he’d never be able to sleep in here.

{Cooper, is your section clear?} GYSGT Cunningham asked from the opposite side of the spacious suite.

Coop wasn’t here sightseeing or settling in. He had a scanning wand in his hand and was supposed to be going over the place for bugs. Not the bed bugs that seemed to infest everything back during Coop’s childhood in the PHA, but surveillance tech. Since the Hegemony was obviously more advanced than humanity, Coop wasn’t sure they were going to find anything even with the wands turned up to maximum sensitivity. All that really meant was Coop’s job was ten times more difficult when the wand beeped a warning every time it picked up anything. It could have been the exotic particles from the previous occupant’s farts for all Coop knew. Still, he remained diligent in the hopes the SGM would be able to let them do a little scouting of the city when the diplomats were buttoned up tight for the night.

{We’re good here, Gunney,} Coop replied as he scanned his last flagged space with his LACS sensors on top of the wand to ensure it was secure.

Alpha Team was securing the teams quarters while Bravo Team was off with the delegation at a meet and greet, orientation, or happy hour. Coop really wasn’t sure. The Stormbreakers had universal communicators, but they were only universal as much as they were used with previously explored species. The devices that sat on the jellyfish-like portion of the ET’s anatomy got the basics of English Standard, but none of the nuances. That made communication difficult. Add to that, that much of human communication was nonverbal, and you had an issue even if the ETs understood the words.

<Not my problem,> Coop thought as he returned the wand to the equipment bracket they’d brought with them.

{Nwo what, Gunney?} Coop didn’t want to sit on his ass when here was an alien space city to explore.

{Now we wait and ensure no one infiltrates these rooms until the delegation returns.}

Coop tried really hard to hide his disappointment. <Hurry up and wait it is.> The concept was as old as the military itself, and now that Coop thought about it, probably as old as the Hegemony. He was sure, somewhere out there, that an alien grunt had just been rushed to complete a job only to have to sit on his gelatinous ass for hours after finishing.

Thankfully, it wasn’t hours for Coop. Thirty-seven minutes later, according to the internal chronometer his IOR provided him, the delegation returned. They were buzzing like a bunch of high school girls who’d just learned the cheer captain had been knocked up by the star quarterback. They didn’t even bother to acknowledge the armored soldiers around them as they set about unpacking all of their crap.

Coop couldn’t help but notice a lot of it was expensive clothing. <Like a floating jellyfish cares what quality smartcloth you’re wearing.> Coop rolled his eyes and was thankful no one could see him.

After a minute, Mike lumbered over and took up a guard position five meters from Coop. It wasn’t close enough to talk face-to-face without being heard, but they could have a private IOR chat. Coop had been playing around with the IOR’s organic version of settings, and was pretty sure he’d found out how to stop his duly appointed NCOs and Officers from listening in on him all the time. This was as good of a time as any to test it.

First off, he didn’t just acknowledge Mike in his mind’s eyes and start talking. He pinged him with a request to talk. The request had a privacy subroutine built into it similar to what Coop had done with his LACS back on New Lancashire. If the GYSGT or SGM wanted to listen in, they’d hear a different conversation than what was actually being spoken. Coop was pretty sure they’d figure out it was a ruse sooner or later, so his next project was figuring out how he could track who was in a conversation, but it would have to do for now.

Coop could hear the confusion in Mike’s thoughts when he accepted the invite to chat. {What are you doing?}

{Just testing something out. So, what did the diplomats talk about?}

{It was an introductory meeting. Not everyone was there, but a few representatives were present. There were two Twigs there than seem to be Bob and Carol’s supervisors. They were interested in their subordinates performance and future trade contracts. There was something that looked like a cloud of bugs that didn’t speak to us at all, but watched us closely. There were more Stormbreakers there seeking introductions, along with a new ET that looked like someone pumped steroids into a Jack Russel Terrier.} Coop felt Mike’s mental shrug at the last bit of info. Apparently, neither of them knew who this Jack Terrier was. {The diplomats were pretty psyched about the Terrier things. They kept talking about sperm or spermia-something. Apparently, scientists back home had stopped believing in it, but the Terriers give it a fighting chance.}

Coop had no more idea about this than Mike, so he made a command decision and brought in a smarter third party. {What are you up to, Coop?}  Eve accepted the invite with trepidation, but listened as Coop brought her up to speed.

{They’re talking about panspermia; it’s a theory that the building blocks of life were distributed throughout the universe by space dust, meteorites, asteroids, comets, or even ancient spacecraft. Many think that because these things would have a common origin; especially if microbes were being transferred from spaceships to new planets, that lifeforms would be somewhat similar. Since our only contact with sentient aliens has been the Twigs, that has thrown that hypothesis into doubt. They’re nothing like us or anything on Earth. Sure, the might have a tree-like appearance, but aside from that every part of their physiology is vastly different from any Earth species. The Stormbreakers are even more different from us than the Twigs. So, the diplomats are probably psyched because this new species they were introduced to seems to have characteristics similar to Old Earth’s dogs.}

{I thought Jack Russel Terrier was a pre-expansion holo star?} Mike stated.  

Coop could feel Eve roll her eyes, so he asked Mike to send him an image of the new species. It took a second for Coop to walk Mike through how to retrieve an image from his IORs data storage, which was essentially pulling the image from his memory and attaching it to an email, but he got it. Coop also queried his IOR’s default library to find images of a Jack Russel Terrier and put the images side by side. The resemblance was only passing.

The image on the left, from an old Earth picture of the dog, showed a small, happy creature. It couldn’t be more than thirty centimeters tall, and if that thing weight eight kilos soaking wet Coop would fork over half a month’s pay. The picture on the right was much more menacing. The face was more angular than the dog’s, with a thin coat of fine hair ranging from white to dark brown. The picture Mike sent Coop showed the ET’s mouth open and some not-so-friendly chompers. The ETs had clearly evolved as predators and had retained sharp teeth capable of tearing and sawing flesh.

They were also much bigger than the Earth dog. The IOR computed that the largest of them was one-point-six meters tall, which made them slightly smaller than the average human, but they looked much more muscular. They were rocking a bit of a hunchback, which Coop guessed was because their ancestors moved around on four legs. There equivalent of arms were disproportionally long, were equipped with four clawed digits, one of which was twice the size of the others, and another smaller with opposable characteristics to wield tools.

Even more interesting to Coop were their clothes. It looked like a mesh material that fit somewhere between armor and formal attire. If it was formal attire than it was just a style thing, but if it was armor then they were definitely militaristic. The only other people they’d seen in armor so far were his SRRT team. Coop wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

To alleviate the primal itch Coop got in the back of his brain that said “predator” whenever he looked at the new ETs, he decided to call them something harmless. If you said something enough times, even if it wasn’t true, you could start to believe it.

{I don’t want to be fighting the Puppies anytime soon judging by those claws.} Coop heard Mike laugh and felt Eve roll her eyes at his nickname for the smaller predators.

{That’s not even the best part,} Mike continued. {From what the diplomats were discussing the Stormbreakers are the aliens who developed the bioseeds and are going to be going through the Commonwealth and licensing the hardware and software for commercial use.}

{It makes sense.} Eve stated. {The Strombreakers have to communicate someway and I haven’t seen any eyes or mouths on them. My guess is some type of electromagnetic sensitivity that lets them project stuff as subtle as brain waves or as powerful as lightening.}

{Why are you a grunt again?} Coop asked. {That’s some science shit right there, Sergeant. Maybe you should put on a lab coat and join the other team.}

{Fuck you, Coop. Anyone can study these things. Not everyone can kill them if we need to.} Eve had a point there.

{Everyone listen up,} the SGM cut off the rest of the conversation. {The diplomats have a dinner with the Hegemony representatives and then a tour. Alpha will stay with the diplomats. Bravo will secure the room and recon.}

<Yes! About time.> Coop almost jinxed himself, but the SGM took pity on him. The LT was going to lead the security detachment. The GYSGT was going to remain with all the gear along with LCDR Gold and Aiko, while Coop, Eve, and the SGM took a look around.

Coop didn’t even consider why the SGM had chosen him, but he was sure it wasn’t for his good looks.

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