Two Worlds – Chapter 102

Eve Berg

Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Eve brought up the rear of the formation, not because she was tired or slower than the guys, but because she wanted to. <I don’t know why every guy wants to take point. It’s like they take pride in being the first person to get shot at. Idiots.>

Every couple of steps she turned around to check behind the line of Ranger candidates that extended about fifty meters, with ten meters spacing between soldiers. They didn’t know what the threat was. They didn’t even know if there was a threat, but she’d bet her monthly paycheck something shitty was going to happen.

The movement and spacing was second nature by now. Doing dozens of squad-level exercises and patrols over the past several weeks had them changing movement techniques based on terrain and maintaining minimum spacing as simple as breathing.  It was also common sense to make sure they all didn’t get killed by a single grenade lobbed into the group.

So far their SERE exercise had involved two days of surviving out in the wild with basically nothing. They had a destination three hundred kilometers away that they were ordered to move towards, but they weren’t given a timeframe to get there. All of that made her nervous.

<And hungry.> Her stomach rumbled loudly, which was becoming more and more common.

Food was scarce out here. There wasn’t any local wildlife that they’d come across, and only a few of the berries on the trees were edible. The last thing anyone needed was to eat poisoned berries and have to call in a medivac. The shits could be fatal if you had them for too long out in the middle of nowhere. At least SGT Diggle had been crafty and brought a few saved snacks from MRE’s they’d eaten before getting dropped in this tropical hell. He was even gracious enough to share with her.

<That’s the downside of the enhancements.> She could feel herself getting more exhausted with every hour. The planet’s gravity was brutal, and the lack of calories was making it nearly unbearable.

“Let’s take five.” The SGT talked at a normal level and everyone heard him.

Their hearing was tuned into the wilderness and twice as sharp as a normal human. They were looking, listening, and feeling the terrain for anything out of the ordinary. Anything that would give them a hint of incoming danger.

<Because it’s coming alright.> She could feel it.

“Ice?” Diggle extended a bag of trail mix.

She immediately began to salivate. Peanuts, almonds, and little bits of chocolate were little slices of protein heaven. He handed over the bag for her to take a handful without comment. At first, she wondered if the SGT was going to ask for a little quid pro quo in exchange for the food.

Eve wasn’t the type of person to give it away, but when you were starving a little hanky panky seemed like a small price to pay. As it turned out, the SGT was a stand-up guy, and he took the bag back without any sort of demands.

The small group had automatically formed a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree perimeter. They made up a dirty, smelly circle with Diggle in the center.

“I’ve gotta shit.” Eve announced to everyone.

“Just remember to bury it, Ice,” was the only response from the squad leader.

There was no privacy between the ranger candidates, even when it came to bowel movements. Everyone had seen everything already.

Diggle shifted to cover her sector as she made her way twenty meters farther into the woods and found a good position. A large tree, about the size of an Earth Redwood, but looking more like a palm tree, had cracked down the center and toppled over. There was a nice private spot in between the two halves of the shattered trunk, and Eve took full advantage of the rare moment of privacy.

She stripped out of her CMUs, ignoring the side effects of swamp ass that sloshed out onto the ground, dug a small hole and went to work taking the Browns to the SuperBowl. She savored the moment more than any other shit she’d taken in her life, and it was probably because of that savoring that she heard the snapping of twigs not too far away.

<Fucking pervs!> She pulled her CMUs up, and let the smart-cloth do the rest.

She kicked dirt over her steaming feces, and slid under one of the fallen trunks away from the sound of the approaching peeping tom. When that sick shit poked their head into her little private spot she was going to teach him a lesson they’d never forget.

She moved silently to a more advantageous position, waited until she heard the squish of boots in the mud, and then jumped over the trunk and gave the dude a punt to the crotch that would make an NFL kicker proud.

The only problem was that it wasn’t a member of her squad.

The guy was in a uniform that seemed to ripple with the foliage around them. She hadn’t seen it before, and fear of seeing the new threat propelled her into motion instantly.

“Mother…!”

She sprinted away from the guys whose nuts she’d shattered, vaulted the broken trunk, and sped toward the rest of her squad. Before she got there another camouflaged man stepped into her path. She didn’t have time to change direction, so she committed to it and barreled right into him.

The camouflaged man’s high-tech uniform rippled as they made contact, he sprawled, and tried to get his forearm under her throat. She was slippery enough to avoid it, spun away, and headed off at a ninety-degree angle away from her squad.

<They probably already fucking got them.> She dodged from side to side when she heard a sizzling behind her and smelled ozone.

She kept her eyes peeled for more camouflaged men as she ran, but she’d barely seen that one guy until she ran right into him. Still, she randomly changed directions and did everything she could to throw the guys off.

It wasn’t working. Every couple of seconds, no more than twenty, she heard more sizzling slicing the air around her. <Whoever they are they’re trying to take me alive.> It made sense. This was a course about survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. They’d been surviving, now she was evading, which meant the next phase was…

The stunning blast hit her in the shoulder. She tripped over her own feet as her muscles seized up, and she plowed into a tree at about thirty kilometers per hour. The tree made out worse than her, with the exception of her nose. That broke with a sickening crunch, but she barely felt it as her body continued to seize from the ongoing shock.

<Good thing I just took a shit.> There was no doubt in her mind there would have been brown running down her leg if she hadn’t.

The electricity running through her had to be hundreds of thousands of volts to take down someone with her enhancements, which meant whoever was after them wasn’t fucking around. She could smell cooked flesh in her shoulder area, which was currently getting rubbed into the dirt. <Great, now I have to worry about infection.>

She barely saw the two sets of camouflaged boots when they appeared next to her, but she did feel the rough hands that grabbed her and hauled her to her feet.

“Got her.” One of her captors tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of flour, except it wasn’t a he. She distinctly felt a boob pressing against her thigh.

“All five accounted for. Let’s move out to the rendezvous. Bird will be here in fifteen to extract us. Then the fun starts.” The camouflage of her captors deactivated. There were two and she recognized one of them.

He was a staff sergeant that had graded one of her patrols. He’d given her a satisfactory, but impressed on her that she barely passed.

<Too bad he isn’t the one I kicked in the junk.>

“Something funny, Recruit?”

“Nope, I…” The fist hit her cleanly on the jaw, rattling her brain, and knocking her unconscious.

 

***

 

Commander Sarah Wythe

CWS Fortitude System 1552, York Sector, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “FTL signature!” A Spacer Apprentice was manning Fortitude’s navigation section since the OIC and NCOIC had been bloodied up at the tail end of the battle. “Three million kilometers at elliptical bearing five-five, Ma’am.”

“Weapons hot, ladies and gentlemen. If that ship is hostile light it up the moment it emerges.” Sarah nursed a fat lip from where her head had met the holo-table in an unfriendly manner, but other than that she was uninjured. She remained cool and collected for the sake of her crew.

But on the inside it was a whole different story. <You’ve got to be shitting me! Just give up already!>

She thought the fight between the Blockies and Commonwealth in System 1552 was over. The emergence of the Star Kingdom’s dreadnaught had been the tipping point for the Blockie force. They’d exchanged a few more salvos and kept up harassing fire all the way to the FTL limit before jumping away. In total, the aggressors had lost one battleship and one destroyer in the engagement. The smaller ship’s destruction was at the hand of the Star Kingdom’s vessel, which was a lot more agile than it looked.

Whatever the relationship was between the Commonwealth and Star Kingdom before the battle, it was pretty clear afterward. The Blockies didn’t take kindly to someone blowing up their ships, especially if said destroyer was packed with ground troops to facilitate the construction of a forward base in the system.

The task force was in a vulnerable position to deal with a new inbound threat. The two battleships, Galahad and Lancelot were drifting about a hundred kilometers apart and exchanging replacement parts and maintenance personnel with consistent flights of Spyders. Liberty was in position to their starboard acting as a guard dog and facing the direction the Blockies had fled.

At the edges of their one light minute bubble the Commonwealth units could still make out the floating corpse of the battleship they’d killed. It was spinning out into space with no signs of life and no active emissions.

Fortitude was doing the same on their port, but the cruiser had been hurt worse than her sister. Half her missile tubes were blown to shit and her entire starboard cannon armament was offline thanks to a blown generator, which had also taken the lives of thirty-five spacers.

It had been an ugly fight, and their victory was largely thanks to the biggest ship in their rag-tag formation, even if HMS Horatio Nelson wasn’t really in the formation. It was sitting thirty thousand kilometers directly above the Commonwealth units. Direct assistance in the repair process before heading back to New Lancashire had been turned down, but Liberty’s captain remained courteous due to the Star Kingdom’s assistance in the battle.

Galahad’s captain was currently in surgery for an injury sustained at the end of the battle. There had been a moment where Sarah actually thought she might be taking command of the task force. Commanding search and rescue operations would have looked good on her OER, but it was quickly determined that Liberty’s skipper was senior by a few years.

Not a lot of that mattered as the data was refined and she got a better sense of what was coming their way.

“Ma’am, CIC reports a small contact, a few small ships or one, maybe two large ones.”

“Full power to ES armor.” She commanded as the ripple in space time solidified into a warship.

There were a tense few seconds until BB 120 Yawin blazed in wonderful blue letters on the holo-tank.

<Thank fucking God.>

“Stand down. Hail the Yawin and inform them of our situation.” She let her shoulders relax.

“Ma’am, Horatio Nelson is accelerating.”

“What?” The tension was back.

“Cheers, Commonwealth units.” The drawling voice was back, and it rubbed her the wrong way. “You no longer require our assistance and your new ship’s presence means our diplomatic mission was well received.”

The dreadnaught was pulling away quickly and heading for the FTL limit. She ignored Liberty’s captain’s reply and motioned for her sensor tech to ensure they got a passive scan on the retreating warship.

The Commonwealth didn’t have a dreadnaught classification of warship, but if they did it would fall between a battleship and assault carrier. Ship designs were different from nation to nation, but the Star Kingdom favored a cigar shaped design. At least, that’s what it appeared like at first. They hadn’t gotten a solid read with passive sensors, even at thirty thousand kilometers, which meant the ship had excellent stealth tech. They couldn’t spot missile tubes on the spinning hull, but the volley the Horatio Nelson had fired to kill the Blockie destroyer had contained two hundred and fifty missiles, fifty more than a battleship. It was also 1.75 kilometers long, .25 kilometers longer than a battleship.

There was little doubt in Sarah’s mind that if a Commonwealth battleship went up against a Star Kingdom dreadnaught the dreadnaught would win. Not only was the ship bigger, probably better armored, and had more missiles, but ten percent more missiles had gotten through the Blockie’s defense compared to the Commonwealth salvos.

All of that led Sarah to thank her lucky stars that they were on the same team, but she still wanted to find a way to kill them if the occasion called for it.

That was just the nature of war. Kill or be killed.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 96

CWS Lancelot

System 1552, York Sector, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Smoke filled the air and leaked through the crack in the Lancelot’s skipper’s face-shield. The quarter-centimeter plate of polyplast was supposed to keep this type of thing from happening, but getting pitched face first into the edge of the holo-tank console wasn’t something the original designers expected. They envisioned spacers and officers staying strapped into their chairs and doing battle with the enemy from a seated position. No one had told those geniuses things didn’t always play out that way, or people had, and the powers that be had ignored them.

Either way, it didn’t matter now as the skipper hacked away as the acrid air filled his lungs. “Get me a new helmet!” He spit out a wad of dark phlegm that was tinged red.  He’d be surprised if he only had a concussion. “Damage report!”

Lancelot was still shuddering from the close range, multiple antimatter missile impacts. Double-digit megatons of force had smashed against the shield and electrostatic-infused nanite armor of the battleship. Modern anti-ship missiles had come a long way over the past century, and the most basic form was a concentrated and directed explosion of an antimatter warhead. Instead of the missile just exploding and expending all its energy in a three hundred and sixty degree free-for-all, engineers had been able to design a system where nearly the full force of the blast funneled into a cone roughly twenty degrees wide. It was the best way to bring the most destruction on target since direct missile-to-ship impacts were rare due to the velocities and evasion protocols built into a modern warship.

Basic physics demanded something had to give. As big as they were, Lancelot and Galahad weren’t immovable objects.

“Port shield was overloaded, but the armor held at seventy-five percent.  We’ve got fires on alpha, bravo, and delta decks, sections twelve thru fifteen. It looks like some circuitry overheated and compensators failed. Damage Control Teams Seven, Nine, and Eighteen are taking care of it now.” The XO, a hearty looking Commander, whose face-shield was still intact, replied over the holo from the CIC.

A CO and XO were never in the same place. The XO needed to take command if the CO died, so they were never both on the bridge during a battle.

“Are we rolled?”

“Roger, Sir. Starboard side is now facing the enemy.”

It was a common tactic to keep warships in the fight longer. As the port shield deflectors recycled, as long as the generators weren’t blown to shit, it was better to put the undamaged starboard shields and armor between the crew of Lancelot and the storm of Blockie missiles.

“Good, get the tank back up or we’re flying blind.” As the commander of the impromptu task force it wasn’t healthy to not have eyes and ears on the battle.

“Rebooting now, Sir.” The communications OIC said just as the holo-tank flickered and came back to life, along with the lighting for the entire bridge.

What it showed was a bit of a mess. The Lancelot’s bridge was covered in fire-suppressant foam to kill the small fires that had erupted from several of the consoles when they took the hits. Ideally, the countermissiles and point defense lasers would have destroyed the enemy missiles farther than a kilometer from the ship, but sometimes shit happened.

“Your helmet, Sir.” A marine sentry stomped onto the bridge in armor and handed the skipper a fresh one.

“Thank you.” The three-striped captain nodded to the private first class with respect, because at the moment they were both knee deep in it.

The universe didn’t care if you were an O-4 or E-3 when it blew up your shit. Everyone was just the same bits of organic matter at that point.

“Weapons status?” The skipper turned back to do his job and slid on his new helmet so the crew of the Lancelot didn’t turn into finely dispersed stardust.

“Tubes six through eighteen have crumbled. They got caught with the launch doors open and the concentrated blast wave wrecked them. Cannons two, three, and four are down too. This is all on top of the existing damage.”

<That isn’t good.>

Lancelot and her task force had been slugging it out with the superior Blockie force for almost ninety minutes now. The gunboat they’d sent for help was well on its way to New Lancashire, but it would be almost a full day before the tiny ship returned with reinforcements.

All that meant was it was up to what was already in the system to defend it against the Blockies.

<We can’t lose the system.> The skipper kept repeating it to himself like a mantra.

With the holo-tank back up the captain got a good look at the tactical plot STRATNET was projecting, and it was good to see things hadn’t changed that much. They hadn’t gone from bad to worse yet.

At the onset of the battle, the battleships CWS Lancelot and Galahad, the cruisers CWS Fortitude and Liberty, and the destroyers CWS Nightingale and Barton had formed a rough wall of battle to face the three incoming Blockie battleships and two destroyers.

A wall was the primary defensive formation of space navies. It spaced the warships a few hundred kilometers apart, and interlocked their defensive systems to provide maximum coverage for everyone. That was key in a weak wall like the one they had now. Destroyers like Barton and Nightingale needed all the protection they could get.

And even then it hadn’t been enough.

The holo-tank showed the lifeless corpse of DD 547 Barton as a lightly shaded blue icon spiraling nose over ass almost thirty thousand kilometers behind the rest of the wall. They couldn’t pick it up on advanced optics but the destroyer had been spewing air, fluids, and humans into the void when a Blockie missile struck a killing blow.

Nightingale wasn’t doing to much better. Barton’s sister ship was still in the fight, but her acceleration had been falling steadily for the past ten minutes, and soon the wall would have to leave her behind or risk losing the battle for position.

Currently, the Blockie and Commonwealth task forces were circling each other like sharks getting closer and closer for the kill. Each time they got closer and closer to energy cannon range, and after that…a boarding action.

Lancelot’s skipper had been in his fair share of battles. He’d been in one-on-one fights, and massive fleet-sized actions with dozens of battleships going at it. Despite everything he’d been through, this type of battle was the most dangerous. The forces facing each other weren’t small enough that one was likely to destroy the other before they got to boarding range. They also weren’t big enough that it was inevitable they would make it to boarding range. In those instances, the commander of one force  or the other would likely disengage before that happened. No one liked to get close enough for the enemy to shoot pods into each other filled with marines. Those battles never ended well for anyone.

The fight for system 1552 was a straight up mauling. Both sides wanted the system and it looked like they take it all the way to do it, including boarding actions; and with a battleship-sized advantage the Blockies would probably win it.

<Probably.> The captain watched as a new flight of red v-shaped icons detached from the Blockie wall and sped across the holo-tank.

“Incoming salvo, five hundred and twenty-six contacts, ETA ninety-three seconds, ” the tactical OIC announced.

It was the same deal as before. The Blockie battleships were handling all the offensive fire, and only allowing their destroyers to help with defense while screening them pretty effectively. The skipper’s guess was that they were probably stuffed with ground pounders for the inevitable boarding action, or planetary landing, and they’d be preserved until the last minute.

In the meantime, the entire Commonwealth force had to use all its firepower to even come close to matching the Blockies’ throwing weight, and even then they were coming up short.

“Echo salvo, entering their engagement envelope.” The tactical OIC stated as the weapons departments on the five remaining Commonwealth ships went to work as their own missiles closed on the Blockies.

Currently, the Blockie task force was just a little over a million kilometers away, which was well inside the eight million kilometer range of the battleship’s missiles, and the cruisers and destroyers’ smaller range of five million kilometers. They’d fired all their functional tubes, four hundred and fifty-nine missiles, at the enemy. Compared to a ship, a missile’s acceleration was ridiculously fast, and it would cover the distance in about a minute. And now that the missiles were starting their final burn the weapons departments went to work.

They tried to defeat the enemy warships electronic warfare countermeasures, countermissiles, and point defense lasers while lining up the best shots. Most of the missiles were the same as the ones that had hammered Lancelot, but some were different.

At Lancelot’s weapons OIC’s command, dozens of EW missiles activated and made their smaller salvo seem much larger than a paltry four hundred and fifty-nine missiles. Then, some missiles went into programmed evasive patterns to try and thread through the incoming countermissiles, while some barreled straight ahead and poured on the acceleration.

Red countermissiles sprang out to meet the Lancelot’s missile salvo at a hundred thousand kilometers. It was like two angry, color-codded hives of pissed off insects trying to kill each other in high definition. Explosion icons started to dot the space between the circling task forces as countermeasures detonated. A lot of them killed the Commonwealth missiles, but some missed, and at the close distance between the warring ships there was only time for one countermissile launch.

About half of the Commonwealth’s salvo made it through the countermissile clash, but as they got closer the Blockie electronic warfare countermeasures started to take effect.

Missiles were blinded and thrown off course, some were jammed and auto shut down to coast ballistically into space, until they reacquired STRATNET and either resumed their attack or detonated. Some missiles honed in on shadow targets created by EW decoys, and would end up emptying their explosive payload into empty space.

When it came down to it another third of the missiles were distracted enough to fail to enter the final zone. Once inside this zone, filled with point defense lasers and railguns, they dipped, dived, juked, and dodged on random courses to get into position to detonate. All while avoiding the small laser blasts and chunks of duro-steel that would either outright destroy them or fry their circuits enough that they became useless hunks of junk.

It was times like these when the skipper hated the effectiveness of Blockie point defense, because when the salvo finally hit there were only a few dozen that made it. But on the bright side, they were all targeting a single battleship.

But battleships were designed to take those hits. Most of those few dozen detonations were glancing blows that were easily shrugged off. A few hit better, but that’s what the shields, armor, and meters-thick hull were for. But when push came to shove, all it took was one.

“YES!” The tactical OIC screamed out loud.

The skipper kept his composure better, but couldn’t hold back the smile. Blockie Three, the extra battleship who’d made their life a living hell, looked like it was dead in the water. Their hull wasn’t rotating in a normal, defensive way, and it looked like they were going into an uncontrolled spin. They were still too far away for even the most advanced optics, but it was clear from the sensors that they’d hit something important.

<We’ve got something close to force parity now.> The skipper felt a glimmer of hope in his gut.

It could have been an ulcer, but he was optimistic.

“Incoming salvo, ETA thrity seconds!”

“Countermissiles?”

“Armed and in the tubes. Plotting solutions.” The weapons OIC responded.

Now it was the Blockies’ turn to return the favor.

“Has their spread changed?” The holo-tank zoomed in to show the outlay of the missiles and their projected course toward the Commonwealth task force.

“Negative, sir.” They’re still putting enough pressure on us and Galahad to keep our gloves up, while hoping to overwhelm the smaller units.

“That’s going to change next salvo.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The skipper felt the vibrations through the duro-steel deck of hundreds of countermissiles firing at the incoming salvo. For the second time in as many minutes blue and red raced toward each other and destruction, but that was the norm of space warfare. You went back and forth; offense, defense, offense, defense, sometimes for hours or days depending on the size of the forces going at it. In larger engagements, crew fatigue was just as much of a danger as incoming missiles, because a silicone brain could be tricked by 1’s and 0’s. A human mind wasn’t fooled so easily.

“Intercept in three…two…one…” the tank exploded with icons as missiles and countermissiles collided and filled the space around them with explosive force. “Intercept moderately effective. Two hundred and three still inbound.”

The skipper glanced at the tank quickly to see their formation. Nightingale was barely screened by Galahad, and that made both cruisers more vulnerable. “Adjust course, negative two degrees. Dedicate five percent more defensive fire to covering this zone here.” He highlighted the holo-tank by touch.

Based on damage reports and computer simulations, that was where Fortitude was most vulnerable.

“EW going active.” The tactical OIC stated, and the Blockie missiles started to go haywire. The Blockies might have really good point defense, but the Commonwealth was second to none in EW tech. If the missiles couldn’t find you then you didn’t have to shoot them down. They’d get rid of themselves.

“Eighty-eight still inbound. Rail guns and point defense going hot in three…two…one…” The tank lit up again with explosions as incoming ordinance was swatted from space.

A few seconds later the first missiles to make it through exploded. Lancelot only shook lightly as the majority of the remaining missiles expended themselves against other targets.

<Good call.> The captain congratulated himself on the last minute course correction.

The tank updated constantly as explosions continued all around the battleship. The data showed that Fortitude was targeted with ten percent more missiles than before. The two-degree course correction probably saved the cruiser.

“Fortitude Actual, Lancelot Actual, cut speed and fall back so we can…”

The transmission was interrupted as a missile exploded and unleased its full force on the Lancelot. The impact wasn’t crippling, but it was at just the right angle at just the right moment.

The blast wave from the missile hit an already crumbling exit port of missile launcher one hundred seven.   It overrode the weakened shields, smashed through the already broken small section of armor, and caused a chain reaction of explosions that rocked the ship. The force of the added explosions smashed their way deep into the warship’s core. The pure kinetic energy and destructive fire destroyed the compensators and turned everyone on the bridge to paste. Anything that was left of the captain and the entire bridge crew was consumed by fire. Their feeble CMU vacsuits were no match for the unlucky turn of events.

Immediately, all vital systems were automatically rerouted to the CIC where the XO took over to continue the fight.

 

Commander Sarah Wythe

CWS Fortitude System 1552, York Sector, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 <That saved our ass.> Sarah thought as Lancelot’s last second maneuver screened the smaller cruiser from multiple missiles that could have badly damaged her.

“Fortitude Actual, Lancelot Actual, cut speed and fall back so we can…”

“Lancelot, say again we lost you…Lancelot Actual…?”

“Lancelot Actual is gone,” a new, stressed voice announced over TACCOM. “XO has taken charge and task force command has passed to Galahad Actual. Orders are to continue mission. Lancelot, out.”

The link went dead and she had to shake herself for a second. She didn’t know and hadn’t even met the battleship’s skipper, but he’d been doing a hell of a job fighting off a stronger force with what he had.

<No time for that.> This might be her first cruiser command, but it wasn’t her first command. The time for mourning would come later.

It was just the nature of modern naval warfare. You could do everything right, make all the right moves, have everything working at one hundred percent, and you could still be blotted from existence. That was something a naval officer or a spacer needed to come to terms with quick, or find a different occupation.

“Ma’am!”

The death of Lancelot’s captain and bridge crew had repercussions for Fortitude. Even though the systems transfer was immediately, there was still a fraction of a second where CIC’s human and silicone brains had to catch up.

The missile detonated about ten kilometers off Fortitude’s port bow. The angle wasn’t great, but that didn’t stop the enemy missile’s software from doing everything it could to kill the cruiser. Unlike a lot of the ordinance being thrown around, this missile wasn’t an antimatter warhead. It was a shotgun missile, a missile designed to get close and unleash a hail of duro-steel projectiles at ridiculous velocities into the hull of a ship. It was known more affectionately as a “can opener”.

The rounds, basically railgun rounds packed into a missile and fired at twenty times the speed of sound, raked the side of Fortitude. The cruiser wailed as metal met nanite armor and alarm bells started to ring. The ES armor held for the most part, stopping the impacts, or deflecting them back off into space. But a few got through and punched into the hull. The hull stopped most of those that got through, but a few rounds made it through the three and a half meter thick duro-steel and into the interior.

“Hull breech, deck Charlie, exterior only, decompression in cabin Charlie-Two-Two-One.” A quick check of the cabin’s use and data before the impact showed that it was uninhabited. “No casualties, Damage Control Team Three is moving to patch the hole.”

Sarah knew Fortitude got lucky. A slightly better angle and she would have taken the full burst of the can opener on the chin, and then they would have been filling a lot of body bags, maybe even her own.

“Ma’am, Nightingale!”

Sarah looked just in time to see the wounded and floundering destroyer explode in a ball of superheated plasma.

“Damnit!” She lost her composure for a second and slammed her suited fist against the holo-tank. The loss of those twenty missiles, both offensively and defensively would be missed now that they had something approaching force parity with the Blockies. Not to mention the crew of eighty spacers.

“Galahad Acutal, Fortitude Actual, adjusting position to cover…” Sarah started.

“Commonwealth Task Force, this is HMS Horatio Nelson of the Star Kingdom of Windsor. You look like you could use a hand.” The message didn’t come in over TACCOM but as a general communications hail from a warship that had suddenly appeared on their sensors two million kilometers to starboard on an elliptical bearing.

<Where the hell did they come from?> That was well within their one light minute bubble and nobody had said anything about their approach.  

The voice immediately made her want to roll her eyes. It was delivered in a casual drawl she’d heard way too many times among the blue-blooded elite of London. If anything, it was the last thing she expected to hear all the way out here. But then she remembered Ben’s class on the Star Kingdom, and the initial hopefulness she’d felt at seeing a battleship-sized, presumed friendly ship vanished.

HMS Horatio Nelson, this is Commonwealth task force commander. State your intentions, and be aware this is an active shooting incident.”

“I just did, old chap, and I can read a sensor screen.  I’m only wondering if you need a hand dealing with this rabble.”

“The rabble isn’t so easily dealt with.” Galahad’s skipper replied as another wave of missiles detonated around the Blockie task force with much less effect than the previous salvo.

“Between your remaining ships and my dreadnaught I think we can make do.” The other ship’s Captain replied with a confidence that Sarah found unsettling.

“Your assistance would be appreciated Horatio Nelson, but take any offensive action against my task force and you’ll be going down with us.”

“Understood. Where do you want us?”

“Set new course to zero-five-zero, burn hard and try to get a shot down their throats. If the Blockie over there has any sense he’ll break off now that we have the advantage.”

“Roger that, setting new course to zero-five-zero at full burn.” The external line went dead.

Fortitude, Liberty, keep an eye on the new guy. If he tries to stab us in the back I want you to slash his hamstring.”

“Roger that, Sir.”

Sarah now had two fronts to watch, and either one could kill her and her ship.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 89

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Fortitude, Alcubierre Bubble, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “You good, Sir?”

“Yes, I am fine.”

Chief Yates leaned back in his seat and shrugged. Ben wouldn’t say he was pouting, but he wasn’t his usual positive self.

Argo’s OIC and NCOIC sat on the bridge of Fortitude in visitor seats, just like Ben had at the beginning of their journey out to York Sector. But a lot had changed since then.

First thing was that he’d started to develop a working relationship with Chief Yates. The old, silver-haired chief petty officer was a little crusty around the edges, but he was damned good at his job. He’d been all over the Commonwealth and served on everything from gunboats to the latest and greatest assault carriers. He’d been married three times, divorced twice, and his third wife was currently MIA. Not in the military sense of the term, she’d just run off one day and the Chief came home from a deployment to an empty apartment.

Thankfully, after wife number one he’d learned to keep his MWFAS account information to himself. So now, the average height, slightly large in the midsection CPO was finishing out his assignment on this gunboat before heading into retirement.

“Nothing but white sandy beaches, drinks with those little umbrellas in them, and lovely ladies to keep me company.” The Chief had shared his plans over drinks, which only made the rest of the trip a little harder for Ben.

Because the second thing that had happened after he familiarized himself with his crew and his ship was that Sarah had broken it off.

<She did not even have the decency to do it to my face.>

His PAD had chimed at the beginning of the duty day after launching away from Asgard, and a short message from Commander Wythe, not Sarah, had come through ending things. She listed not having enough time to spend together, and the needs of her new command as the primary reasons, but Ben couldn’t stop a nagging suspicion in the back of his mind.

She’d been totally uninterested in him beyond basic superior-subordinate professionalism up until his deal with Rear Admiral Helms. Then she’d become interested, helped him prepare, gotten close, and ended up getting out of the personnel department by doing god knows what at his family’s Memorial Day party.

<No.> He shook his head to clear all the negative emotions. <I looked in her eyes. We slept together and laughed together. It is not possible she faked all of it just to get ahead.>

Still, the doubt persisted, so he concentrated on what came next.

“Transition in three minutes, I say again, transition in three minutes.” A voice announced over the intercom. “All hands, battlestations.”

“Battlestations?” Ben looked around with confusion as he grabbed his helmet and shoved it on his head.

It was a formfitting design, engineered to take up the least amount of space, with a clear armorplast visor that doubled as a HUD. He felt it pop into place and his smart-cloth CMUs automatically formed a neck gator to completely seal his body in. If Fortitude got ambushed coming out of FTL, which was every skippers’ worst nightmare, then Ben would be able to avoid death-by-vacuum for a few hours. The helmet had a small oxygen canister built into it, but it would only buy time, and that was only if the CMU’s integrity wasn’t violated by shrapnel. Then, he’d be dead in minutes.

“Book says you don’t have to be at battlestations when transitioning into a friendly system, but this is the Rim, so better safe than sorry.” Chief Yates placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder, automatically creating a TACCOM link between them.

“That makes sense. Commander Wythe is very good at her job.” It was meant to be a compliment, but it came out cold and stiff.

The CPO wisely didn’t comment.

“Transition in one minute.” The intercom continued to count down.

“Lieutenant Briggs, report Argo’s readiness for transition.” Ben sat back and waited for his XO to answer.

Truthfully, he should have been on his ship and not sitting useless on the cruiser’s bridge. He didn’t know why Sarah had asked him up here in the first place.

“Skipper, Argo is green for transition.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Ben cut the line, and was thankful for the millionth time that Briggs was a competent officer.

He’d learned in the last week that one of the most important parts of being a skipper was to ensure you had a top-notch XO. A good XO was invaluable. A good XO and CPO was hitting the lottery.

“Transition in three…two…one…”

Ben felt the jerk as Fortitude went from faster than light speed to cruising at several kilometers per second. Sarah had cut the ship’s speed down to nearly nothing so they could make a quicker changeover through the system.

The holo-tank slowly expanded the one light minute bubble around the ship as they started to coast into the system.

“Ma’am, I’m picking up Commonwealth comms drones.” The communications OIC identified a few icons in the growing eighteen-million-kilometer bubble around them.

“Interesting.” Sarah was sitting in her command chair with a pensive look on her pretty face. “Check their queues to see if there are any pre-programmed…” Just then the holo-tank chirped as two contacts came into range.

Ben was halfway across the bridge, but he saw the icons in the tank: BB 112 Lancelot and BB 115 Galahad. Both were registering blue, friendly transponders.

<What are two battleships doing out here in a middle of nowhere junction system.> Ben didn’t have time to puzzle out why.

“Fortitude Actual, this is Lancelot Actual, over.” A tense voice announced itself over TACCOM.

“I read you five by five, Lancelot Actual. What’s with the welcome committee?” Sarah asked back, her face glued to the holo-tank.

Fortitude, change course immediately to niner-zero and go to emergency power.”

Lancelot…” Sarah was about to protest but a burst of STRATNET data from the pair of battleships updated the tank, and it became obvious why the battleship’s skipper wanted them to haul ass.

“Data received, Lancelot, but we can’t just run off with our tail between our legs. We’re escorting the supply ship Beans and Bullets. They’ve got a battalion of troops along with fuel for the atmospheric exchangers still going on New Lancashire, and tons of food and raw materials. We can’t just leave them.”

Beans and Bullets has the same information as you, Fortitude. They’re changing course and pulling their max acceleration. Match speed if you want, but be prepared to fight.”

“This is Liberty Actual,” the other Virtue-Class cruiser captain broke into the conversation. “We’re sticking with Fortitude to pull security for Beans and Bullets. Looks like we’ve got reinforcements coming in behind you, Lancelot.”

Liberty was right. Ben saw two FTL footprints on the holo-tank. The one to Fortitude’s port was much larger than the one to Lancelot’s stern, but every energy cannon and missile counted when it came to a fleet engagement.

Ben suppressed the surge of fear and dread that tried to escape, and turned it into a gulp. Whatever was about to happen it could get bloody.

<It all depends on who they are and what acceleration they pull once they exit FTL.> He did some mental calculations, and enemy forces transitioning at even a moderate rate of speed would put Fortitude, Liberty, and Beans and Bullets in a tight situation.

Currently, they were a little under ten million kilometers from the Commonwealth battleships. The presumably friendly FTL signature was another million kilometers behind Lancelot, and the one everyone was nervous about was thirty-fiving million kilometers to the stern of Fortitude’s new heading and negative to the elliptical. The biggest missiles in the battleships’ tubes had a maximum range of eight million kilometers. Everything below a battleship had smaller missiles with a five-million-kilometer range.

Ben was still doing some mental math when a new icon popped onto the screen.

“FTL signature!” Fortitude’s navigation OIC shouted into the already stressed bridge. “Five-zero million kilometers at elliptical bearing two-five-five, designated Delta.”

“This system’s starting to get a little crowded for my taste.” The CPO sitting next to Ben looked calm, but his frown lines betrayed his anxiety.

“Let’s get back to Argo.” Ben and the Chief both got to their feet.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold.” Sarah’s voice popped into his head over a private link. “Your orders are to take the Argo and make all due haste to New Lancashire. The Commonwealth cannot lose this junction system. Apprise them of the situation and return with reinforcements.” Her voice sounded detached as she relayed the orders.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Ben matched her tone. “Happy hunting.”

“Ben…” there was a slight pause and a crack in her professional demeanor. “Be careful.”

“You too, Ma’am.” Ben thawed his tone, but remained professional. She’d made it clear it was over, and he wasn’t going to stick his toes back in only to get hurt again.

He cut the link and hustled off the bridge with Chief Yates not far behind. Thankfully, the corridors of warships, even Argo, were designed with big people in mind, but the hatches were another deal. He had to duck through each of them, and in his haste, he’d smacked his head once or twice.

“Make a hole people!” Chief Yates roared in the way only a senior NCO could, and people parted to let him and Ben through.

“Lieutenant, warm her up! We’re out of here as soon as we get the green light from Fortitude.”

“Yeah, I figured, Sir.” The XO must have been watching the gunboat’s holo-tank because her voice was stressed too.

“Geoffrey.”

“Yes, Commander Gold.” The ship answered.

After the break up, Ben wasn’t going to have the ship constantly remind him of the woman who’d tossed him aside for whatever reason. After five minutes digging around in the ship’s settings menu he’d not only changed the name, but the voice of the Semi-Intelligent Ship’s Interface. So, instead of it reminding him of the woman he’d grown close to, now it sounded like an older English gentleman who’d been present for most of his life. Having Geoffrey present, if only in spirit, helped Ben’s mood significantly.

“What is an ETA on getting all of our systems up?”

“Sir, it will only require three minutes for the reactor to come online from standby mode. Another two minutes and all essential systems will be green. Secondary systems will require another five minutes.”

“Weapons?”

“Weapons charging has commenced. Missiles are already in the tubes, but charging will take seven minutes.”

“Fortitude Actual, Argo Actual, over.” Ben cut his link to the ship and opened one to the bridge.

“Go.”

Sarah’s voice was beyond stressed now.

Argo will be ready to depart in five minutes.”

“Make it three, Argo. Or you’re going to get caught in the middle of this. Fortitude, out.”

“Geoffrey?”

“I heard, Sir. On your authorization, I can bypass minor protocols and reduce the reactor initiation to two minutes and thirty-five seconds and can initiate other essential systems in-flight.”

“Do it.” Ben’s head rebounded when he didn’t duck low enough, but he kept on going. Three minutes was barely enough time to get back to the gunboat.

They made it in two minutes and fifteen seconds. The flight deck was clear and the gunboat’s engines were already emitting the blue-white glow of engines ready to manipulate gravity to their human master’s will. One marine guard stood waiting at the entrance hatch in full Dragonscale Armor.

“Let’s go!” The outer hatch hissed shut behind the three men, and the interior slammed shut with finality.

“Helm!”

“Yes, Sir.” Spacer Apprentice Silas Gilbert, Argo’s helmsman, answered. Thankfully, despite his junior rank, the former Rat from New York’s lower-city was a hell of a lot better at piloting the gunboat than Ben.

“Get us out of here.”

“Roger that.”

Ben felt the docking clamps disengage a second before the rumble of the retracting flight deck nearly made him smash his head into another bulkhead as he and the Chief rushed through marine country and up toward the bridge. They pushed into the much smaller, but still identical setup to Fortitude’s bridge just as Argo dropped out of the cruiser’s belly and engaged its engines.

“The skipper has command.” Lieutenant Briggs’ relief was obvious as Ben passed through the thick, marine-guarded hatch and into the bridge.

“I have command.” Ben took his proper position at the command chair and looked at the holo-tank.

<Oh no.>

“Helm, set course to one-zero, and go to full power.”

“Aye, Sir. Course one-zero, full power.”

Ben didn’t feel the gunboat accelerate, but he started to see it on the holo-tank. Gunboats were some of the fastest ships in the fleet, they were small, lightweight, and with an overpowered engine designed to allow them to use their speed to get out of sticky situation. The situation Argo was in was one of the stickiest.

The holo-tank had updated FTL footprint Bravo when the ships transitioned, and it was now reading the ugly red icons of Blockie warships. Specifically, three battleships and a pair of destroyers. If it was two and two it would have been better odds for the Commonwealth, but the additional tonnage of a third battleship gave the Blockies a decisive edge.

“FTL emergence!” Corporal Diez, the infantry grunt cross training with the Fleet, and Argo’s single-person navigation department, yelled out.

You could tell the almost NCO was used to yelling “grenade” instead of tactical information.

“Charlie has transitioned.” The icons were gray for a few seconds until they picked up the transponders and turned blue.

The holo-tank updated with the new information: DD 547 Barton and DD 783 Nightingale.

Ben did the math. <Two battleships, two cruisers, and two destroyers. That’s ninety-four energy cannons and five hundred and seventy missiles per salvo.> It was a respectable amount of offensive firepower, but it still came up short.

He didn’t know the specifics of the Blockie ship classes, but a general assumption would be six hundred and forty missiles per salvo and one hundred energy cannons between the three battleships and two destroyers. None of these calculations took into account Argo’s four missiles and three lasers. Argo might be the biggest and baddest gunboat in the galaxy but it was insignificant compared to the two task force sized elements heading toward each other.

More mental math told him that there was going to be blood. Fortitude, Liberty, and Beans and Bullets weren’t going to be able to escape. Carrying nearly no acceleration over from FTL had them starting the race from a dead stop. The Blockie force had come out of FTL at a sprint and was gaining. The good news was that the two cruisers would rendezvous with the battleships and newly arrived destroyers before it happened, and be able to screen the supply ship as a single fighting wall before they got overwhelmed.

Not that Argo would be there to see it. They’d be in an Alcubierre bubble before the shooting started, and most likely back after it finished.

Ben felt happy his little ship wasn’t going to be there to get blown apart, and ashamed that he felt any happiness. For all he knew Sarah and a sizable chunk of the Commonwealth Fleet in York sector were about to get wiped off the map.

<You can’t do anything.> He told himself over the next hour as his gunboat drew closer to the FTL jump point and the two task forces closed on each other. <Follow your orders. Get help.>

It didn’t help that the Delta FTL contact had dropped an unidentified warship in the assault carrier tonnage category slightly under fifty million kilometers from the two task forces, and they weren’t responding to anyone’s hails. It was just sitting there and watching.

“Skipper, three-zero seconds to Alcubierre jump.” SA Gilbert announced.

“All hands, prepare for FTL jump.”

A wail went through the gunboat, and Ben plopped down in his command chair and strapped in. Jumping into FTL could be a little bumpy, especially on a smaller ship.

“STRATNET coordinates inputted. We have a lock on New Lancashire’s buoys. Transitioning in three…two…one…”

Argo leapt away from System 1552 at faster than light speeds as the Commonwealth and Blockie forces closed into attack range.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 84

Benjamin Gold

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

 “Status?”

“Ma’am, docking clamps unlocked and mooring cables disconnecting. Decoupling procedures will be complete in one minute.”

“One minute, people, so look alive. This is Fortitude’s maiden voyage. Let’s make it a memorable one.”

Ben sat at the back of the bridge in a visitor’s chair as Sarah conducted her crew like a maestro. They’d both been so busy since they arrived on Constitution that this was the first time he’d seen her in days.  He understood why. The demands of being a skipper outweighed their physical and emotional needs.

Despite that, a thought kept scratching at the back of his mind. There were a few times they could have seen each other. They’d scheduled time to eat chow in the officer’s mess together, but every time something always came up on her end.  He’d have his hopes up and then he’d get a message on his PAD to reschedule.

<It’s not like that.> He pushed down the thought. <We’re just both swamped right now.>

Argo’s true maiden voyage with him in command had been a short ride up two rings and into the larger cruiser. Now it sat tucked comfortably in the belly of Fortitude for the journey to York Sector, so he didn’t have much to do other than paperwork at the moment. He’d hoped he’d be able to at least talk to her, but now it looked like she’d be busy again.

While he was here trying to talk with his quasi-girlfriend, his XO was in command. He’d met her earlier in the week and put her to work immediately.

Lieutenant Heather Briggs was an endless pit of energy, which was a welcome relief to a new skipper who was trying to figure some things out on the fly. She’d spent time as an ops section OIC on a destroyer before getting the XO position, and she made it abundantly clear how excited she was for this opportunity. She always had a smile on her face and a skip in her step. The marine squad loved her, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t her good graces that they were trying to get into.

He was confident she would behave professionally, but if not he would take the appropriate actions. Good order and discipline were paramount on a warship where they were going.

“Mooring cables disconnected. Keeping station with thrusters.” The helmsman announced from the front of the bridge.

There wasn’t a window or anything for the man to look out of. The bridge was in the heart of the ship, below several decks and meters of duro-steel and nanite armor. Still, the human brain had a need for visual stimuli, so a holographic rendering on the polyplast-covered bulkhead in front of the ship’s driver showed a forward view of the ship. It made it look like he was sitting in the driver’s seat of the half-kilometer, hundred and fifty thousand ton cruiser.

“Ok, Helm, give me a quarter pulse. Let’s back it up nice and easy. Don’t scratch the paint.”

“Aye, Ma’am. Reverse quarter pulse. Preserve the paint job.”

A few people around the bridge chuckled as the helmsman did his job and the view on the screen slowly started to change.

Small gravitic thrusters on the bow of the ship activated and gave a gentle pulse of artificial gravity. It was enough to move the cruiser a few meters per second, and physics did the rest. Smaller thrusters on the sides ensured the ship didn’t sway to port or starboard, and Sarah’s command of keeping the paint fresh was obeyed. It was infinitely more complicated than backing an air-car out of a parking space, but the bridge crew made it look just as simple.

<If only the original architects had a little more foresight they would have spaced out the rings more so ships could go up or down.>

Hindsight was twenty-twenty when it came to things like that. Fleet Command had eventually thought about it, because the capitol ships were docked on the top ring. In the event of an emergency they could undock from Constitution faster than anyone by going up and away from the anchorage.

Constitution, this is Fortitude. Clearing the dock now. Slot us in the queue.”

“Roger that, Fortitude. Proceed along route Mike Six-Two. Once you reach the thousand kilometer mark confirm handoff to Sol Command. Good luck.

“Rodger, proceeding along route Mike Six-Two to the thousand – K mark and then conducting handoff to Sol Command. Thanks for the work, Constitution. See you in six months.”

Ben glanced over at the holo-tank that was only showing the thousand meter bubble around CFB Constitution. There were dozens of warships coming and going. Hundreds of shuttles heading up from Earth either docked with the station permanently or just made a pit stop before heading to Mars. He could also see thousands of small construction drones buzzing around ships like busy little bees.

Constitution was alive with purpose.

It was seeing all that activity, and all that life, that made him realize he was heading to the farthest reaches of human civilization. He’d be thousands of light years from home, with no one but the crew of the Argo to keep him company.

By the nature of his job, the crew weren’t his friends, they were his subordinates. It was his job to make sure they did their jobs and they all got home safe. <It is going to be a long six months.>

He got to his feet and left the bridge as Fortitude made its way along its assigned route. The trip out to the Commonwealth’s main Alcubierre Launcher was a pretty straightforward journey. The launcher sat between Mars and the asteroid belt. They’d use it to refine their Alcubierre bubble to access the higher bands of hyperspace. They’d go from Sol to the Asgard Junction about forty light-years away. Asgard’s launcher would take them all the way to the Deadwood system, which was the official boundary between the mid and rim worlds. From Deadwood they had a jump to an unnamed system junction, and from there it was a short hop by ship drive’s to New Lancashire where Task Force Thirty-Three Point Four was stationed.

They wouldn’t be making the journey alone. Fortitude was joining up with its sister cruiser CWS Liberty at the launcher, and a fleet supply ship that was carrying everything from fresh troops to fresh fruit for the sector capitol.

Ben didn’t really need to pay any attention to all that. He’d call up to see if Sarah was free after the handoff to Sol Command. Maybe they’d get a few minutes on the three hour flight to the launcher, or maybe not. The more he thought about it the more he was convinced it would be the latter.

Right now, he just needed something to do.

<I still have a few NCO initial counseling sessions to do.> Being formerly from personnel, and more specifically promotions, he knew how important it was to sit down with his NCOs on a regular basis and give them updates and feedback on their performance. Initial counseling sessions were also a good time to set the tone of his command.

“Sarah?” He asked the moment he stepped from the hanger deck and onto Argo. He didn’t miss the irony in naming his semi-intelligent ship’s interface after a girl he didn’t see much anymore.

“Yes, Commander Gold.”

“Please send Specialist McKinnie to my quarters.”

“Right away, captain.”

Specialist Third Class Daniel McKinnie was the gunboat’s engineering NCOIC. It was undoubtedly one of the most difficult jobs on the ship. It was McKinnie, and his Engineering Apprentice, Spacer Aiko Lee’s job to keep the ship running. It was a tall order for two people. There were two maintenance hands, a Spacer and Spacer Apprentice, to help out but they were only trained on general maintenance tasks. So, the buck fell back on the two engineers. To make it even more difficult, the engineer was only an SP3, MTOE for a gunboat engineer called for an SP2.

That was something Ben had noticed quickly upon taking command. MTOE called for three SP2s, to fill the department NCOIC slots. The chief petty officer took the one he was most comfortable with, but the other three were supposed to be handled by seasoned NCOs. What Ben got was an infantry corporal doing cross training handling navigation, McKinnie in engineering, and then only one MTOE appropriate NCO in charge of communication. Despite being the commo NCO, SP2 Olvera hadn’t said more the ten words to Ben the entire time they’d been on the ship. Including their counseling session.

<I need to talk to the Chief about her.>

As far as the rating chain went Ben wasn’t McKinnie’s rater. The NCOs direct supervisor was Chief Petty Officer Yates, Argo’s NCOIC and Ben’s right hand man. Ben was McKinnie’s senior rater, meaning that he blessed off on and wrote his own comments on top of Yates’ evaluation. Normally, a spacer wouldn’t get to see a lot of their senior rater, maybe only a few times during their whole rating period, but on a gunboat with only twenty people everyone ran into everyone. So it was a good idea for McKinnie to know Ben’s leadership philosophy right off the bat.

That philosophy was simple: follow regulations, maintain good order and discipline, be ready for anything, be able to think outside the box, and complete the mission. As long as he followed those simple rules things would run smoothly for everyone. NCOs had their lane and officers had theirs. Everyone would stick to those lanes unless something wasn’t working or went wrong, but he didn’t foresee that happening.

This was a pretty standard mission, and despite being far from home, he was supremely confident in his own, his crew’s, and his ship’s ability to accomplish their tasks and make it back home.

<Then it’s off to the Diplomatic Corps.> He smiled at the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

***

 

Noah Grisham

Location: Tortuga, Unaffiliated System, Mid Worlds

 

Tortuga was paradise. It said it right on the big ass sign floating in the dusty clouds above the partially terraformed planet’s only city. From a planetary ecosystem viewpoint, it was a shit hole. But the beauty of it went past the physical. In the domed city, nestled in the shadow of a giant plateau, a hundred thousand people did what they wanted, where they wanted, whenever they wanted. They didn’t have to live by the Collies’ rules. They didn’t have to squirm under the thumb of the Blockies. They didn’t even have to worry about the Corpies’ ever looming profit margins. Here in Tortuga everyone was free.

To a point.

Noah saw that case and point when he sidestepped into a dark alley with Able just as gunfire cut down elements of a small time gang trying to peddle something on a street corner. He could tell it was another rival gang by the loud booms of their cheap, old, and unreliable chemically-propelled weapons, and the way they scrambled to grab whatever they could off the dead guys’ bodies before the authorities showed up.

That didn’t work out so well for them.

The “authorities” were three big guys in black smart-cloth suits packing hand cannons. Old-school ink tattoos spread across their skin, up through their shirt collars and onto their faces. Their small cannons emitted half-meter balls of pure plasma that ate right through the little gangbangers. The weapons were more intimidating than practical. Those plasma balls only had an effective range of fifty meters, and they were slow moving, but intimidation was a weapon all its own on Tortuga.

“Excuse me, gentlemen.” Noah walked right up to the three men who’d just casually put down the street thugs. “My employer has a meeting with your boss.” He produced a holographic card that got close scrutiny, then a nod and a gesture to follow.

The three men didn’t consider the small red-headed runt to be a threat, so they didn’t even keep an eye on him as they walked down a street lined with bars and brothels. Their attention was entirely on Able.

Despite the establishments present, customers spilled into the streets to drink and fuck however they pleased. The black suits and plasma weapons kept the revelers at bay until they reached a four story casino at the corner of a major intersection. Two more black suits stood guard outside and no one came within fifty meters of the place unless they were sober, dressed, and looking to spend money.

Noah and Able got waved through and walked to an old-fashioned elevator at the back of the main floor behind another guarded door. The pirate captain felt the small cabin lurch as steel cables pulled the elevator up. It moved slowly without an anti-grav lifting mechanism, but that was the point. The people at the top wanted time to prepare for their guests.

“Mr. Able,” a practiced sensual voice greeted them as they stepped off the elevator. “How lovely to see you again.”

A lithe woman, with obvious bodily enhancements, stepped around a nearby chair and walked over to kiss the large mercenary on both cheeks. The smile showed her age lines, wrinkles, and scars. Once upon a time she had been a very attractive woman, but years of working her way to the top of her particular industry had been hard on her.

“Ma’am.” Able answered with his usual brusqueness.

Noah restrained himself from stomping on his beard’s foot. He needed to teach the warrior the art of sophisticated conversation.

The woman released the former soldier after holding his arms a second too long, and made space for the room’s two other occupants.

“Mr. Able.” The first man gave a small bow from a safe distance.

His ancestors clearly came from Earth’s Asian countries, as opposed to the woman’s eastern European or Slavic ancestors. The last man was as dark as Tortuga’s thirty-two-hour night, but his handshake held the gravitas of a heavy-worlder.

Able didn’t even wince at the manly tug-o-war. His military enhancements more than compensated for his home world’s normal gravity.

“Please take a seat.” The last man, and the triumvirate’s leader, gestured to chairs set aside specifically for Noah and Able.

Together, the three people meeting with the pirate captain controlled Tortuga’s gambling, sex, and drug trades. Essentially, they owned the planet. But more importantly to the diminutive pirate, they served as brokers. If someone needed a job done they put out feelers. Those feelers got in touch with people like Tortuga’s enterprising management team, who then got in touch with freelancers like Noah and Able. The whole system offered a degree of separation between the clients and the operators. So if Noah was ever caught he couldn’t lead the authorities back to the clients. He would be able to turn over Tortuga’s leaders, but that had its own dangers involved. Primarily, it would get him blacklisted throughout the galactic underworld network, which meant he would be out of a job and have to go make an honest living.

<I’d rather shoot myself in the fucking head.>

“I have what you ordered.” Able informed the group. “Twelve million in silk.”

It was two million more than the agreed upon price, but haggling at the last minute was a bit of a tradition in these circles.

“Twelve million it is.” The woman didn’t even put up a fight. “Now we have another job for you.”

Noah immediately tensed up as warning alarms started sounding in his mind. That had been way too quick. They were paying over market price for the silk. They were going to lose seven figures on the deal. It didn’t make any sense.

“Sir, we have that other contract.” Noah leaned over and informed Able.

It was their prearranged code phrase that there might be danger.

Able was a hammer. His job was to hit nails. It wasn’t his specialty to notice the subtle nuances of negotiation.

The woman looked at Noah like he’d taken a shit on the rug and she’d stepped in it. He respectfully lowered his eyes. He had a knife up his sleeve that he could probably get in the woman’s neck before the guards turned him into Swiss cheese, but that didn’t do him any good right now.

“Consider this one first.” The black man handed over a data chip.

Able took it and handed it off to Noah who was already pulling out his PAD. He placed the chip on the PAD’s polyplast surface. After a few seconds it had downloaded all the information.

Noah’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. It was a file on a target, and the price tag on the guy’s head was eight figures. He showed the information to Able and hoped the mercenary wouldn’t start drooling.

“That’s a generous payday.” Noah replied, as Able tried to come to grips with what a fifty million dollars would feel like sitting in their accounts.

“The clients are very interested in seeing this done quickly and professionally. They have a time table to keep, and need an answer today or they’ll move onto someone else.”

“Why me?” Able was back with them now and playing his part perfectly.

“The silk job has impressed several people, and your reputation is well-known throughout certain circles. I won’t lie and say you were the first candidates, but you were near the top of the list.” The woman smiled coyly.

“Why’d the top picks pass?” Noah dug deeper into the folder and saw why.

<Attacking a flagged ship of one of the big three starfaring nations, kidnapping someone, and then holding them for ransom.> It would be an act of war if anyone else did it. <Yeah, I’d say no too. But…fifty million bucks.> It was hard to pass up. That was retirement level money.

“The usual.” The Asian man lurked in the background of the conversation. “They felt the risk wasn’t worth the reward.”

<Dumbasses.>

“Are we pirates or privateers on this mission?” Able inquired.

The difference between the two was important considering who they were going up against.

“If you accept you’ll have an official operating license from the United Commonwealth of Colonies by the end of the day. Along with coordinates for a supply pick up in their territory.” The woman smiled again at Able.

“Logistics?” Able ignored the woman and looked at Noah. This was their code for the real captain to make a decision.

“This isn’t a one crew job. You need at least two: one to distract and one to strike. Is there any upfront money?”

“One million.”

<Someone really wants this guy bad.> Ponying up a million bucks on a long shot wasn’t something you saw every day.

“We’ll need a least a day to resupply and find another crew willing to do the job. But after that, yes, Sir, it should work.” Noah nodded to Able.

“We’ll take the job.” Able accepted and the five people got to their feet. There wasn’t any time to waste.

“Thank you, Mr. Able. Our people will follow you back to your ship to unload the silk and render payment. Do you require anything else during your stay?” The woman couldn’t be laying it on thicker unless she tried to blow the mercenary right in front of everyone.

“No thank you, Ma’am. We’ve got work to do.”

“So professional.” She swooned, and Noah had to stop from rolling his eyes.

“Good luck, Captain.” Both men shook Able’s hand and walked with them back to the elevator.

With their business completed, the door closed behind them and they started to descend back to the casino floor.

Able was grinning like he’d just won the lottery, which was true, but Noah was too focused to rein in the killer’s enthusiasm.

<I need to figure out who this Benjamin Gold is, and why he’s so important?>

Able would be able to handle the resupply. Noah had research to do.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 81

Benjamin Gold

Location: CFB Constitution, Sol System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Commonwealth Fleet Base Constitution was the heavyweight champion of the Sol System. It was a living breathing organism more complex and confusing than any tiny human body. Fleet personnel, infantry men and women, and Ministry of War contractors moved through the fleet base like cells through the human body. Everyone had a job, everyone had a purpose, and most importantly everyone was on the move.  Millions of people moved through the station every day, and they all had somewhere to be.

It was easy to get lost in the ten kilometer thick, fifty kilometer high central spire surrounded by its six levels of docking yard rings. Those rings housed about seventy percent of First Fleet. A few assault carriers, squadrons of battleships, battlecruisers coming in and going out on patrol, regular and missile cruisers, and enough destroyers to protect commerce in the galaxy’s most populated system.

The CFB gave any first time visitor a severe case of shock and awe, and Ben found himself the unlucky victim this time around. Despite having reached the rank of lieutenant commander, he’d never been to the Sol System’s major hub of warships. The irony didn’t escape the young skipper as he set foot off the shuttle and into the massive complex. Luckily, he had a guide.

“You’re down on F-ring. That’s usually where they keep the smaller ships, or ships that are finishing their yard time.” Commander Wythe, now almost exclusively referred to as Sarah, was dressed in her CMUs.

The two golden stripes of a commander tended to offer a small bubble of privacy on the bustling anchorage, especially when she had a newly awarded red command stripes between the gold. Ben’s parents Memorial Day celebration hadn’t just been their first kiss. Sarah had also made a few contacts and secured herself a new position. Ben didn’t know how she’d done it, but a week after the party orders came down giving her command of a brand new cruiser.

She had the rank, time in grade, and experience for the position. It was the suddenness of it that was surprising. But Ben didn’t care. Not only was she the skipper of a new cruiser, but the cruiser’s mission had also suddenly changed. The new warship, just recently out of its maintenance qualifications, was headed to the York Sector with its sister ship.

As a result, Ben had given Sarah a private briefing on the Star Kingdom of Windsor. A very private and extended briefing. It was tough to beat how everything was magically falling into place, but then it got even better. Not only were they serving in the same sector, in the same task force, but the cruiser was giving his gunboat a ride out there, which meant even more time they could spend together.

Sarah had been quick to tell him that they probably wouldn’t get any time at all, but Ben still held out hope. His innocent crush might just be turning into something more.

“You are docked up in C-Ring. We can see your ship on the way to mine.” It felt a little weird talking possessively about multi-billion dollar pieces of naval warfighting technology, but he loved that she lit up every time he mentioned it.

Two skippers walking together created a path like Moses parting the Red Sea, but even with that it took nearly half an hour to get from the shuttle bay at the tip of the central spire down to C-Ring.

“There she is.” Sarah involuntarily gripped Ben’s bicep. “That’s my girl.”

There were no windows on the CFB. Windows made of polyplast or even the stronger armorplast were a tactical liability. Gunners on an enemy ship would target the feeble material and blast hole after hole into the CFB. So, instead of weakening the structural integrity of the base, designers utilized sensors to maximize the view for the base’s inhabitants. Thin, clear polyplast panels were everywhere on the inside of the thick duro-steel walls, and acted like the windows that everyone desired.

“She is beautiful.” Ben split his attention between the cruiser and the officer ordered to command it.

“She’s a new Virtue-Class. She’s got thicker armor than other cruisers; three and a half meters instead of three. She doesn’t sacrifice any speed either, and she’ll still outrun a battlecruiser. She packs a punch too. A dozen energy cannons and sixty-five missile tubes. She can throw around her weight if it’s needed.” Sarah was practically bouncing up and down on her toes. “We’re going to be a pivotal addition to the task force.”

“Yes you will.” Ben looked at the ship’s crest for CA 663 Fortitude.

<The CWS Fortitude. It is a fitting name.> The name wasn’t written on the side of the ship in white paint. That would compromise the hull’s nanite stealth function, but he’d heard Sarah gush about the ship enough over the past few weeks that he’d never forget it.

Despite her being the captain, and having the orders to prove it, the half dozen marines standing guard at the entry hatch had standing orders that no one was allowed to enter. Not even the captain, and they weren’t compelled to give a reason why.

“How about we check out Argo and then come back.” Ben stepped in when Sarah started to puff up at being denied entry to her own ship without an explanation. “I know you are looking forward to those new aspects in the design.”

That did the trick, but Sarah made sure to get the soldiers’ names and ranks.

“Sure.” The NCO in charge didn’t even hesitate. “Won’t matter though, we aren’t part of the ship’s marine detail.”

Ben half guided, half dragged Sarah away from the sergeant.

F-Ring was different from C-Ring. First off, there were a lot more berths. C-ring held the mid-class ships, mostly cruisers. The average cruiser was five hundred meters long. A gunboat was only one hundred, which meant that even with some destroyers present there were about three or four times as many ships on this ring.

“I cannot find her.” Ben pulled up the registry to find what berth Argo was sitting in.

“Classified projects won’t have their berth listed. Scan your GIC.” Sarah informed.

A soft beep and new information popped up on the subdermal PAD that projected the information through his CMUS and onto his forearm. The berth assigned to Argo was disguised as under construction. Dozens of people still walked past it every second, but they didn’t pay any attention to the workers in their contractor’s overalls, and the contractors didn’t pay any attention to them. The eight men and women went about their business until Ben and Sarah approached.

It was then that Ben spotted the weapons discretely placed within easy reach of the so-called workers.

<No one is getting onto my ship without clearance. Not unless they’d got a squad of marines as backup. Not even me.> Ben met the worker’s leader.

They didn’t exchange pleasantries. There was no, “Hello, Sir. What can I do for you, Sir?” The man just had a portable scanner. Ben held out his GIC and the man scanned it while his team looked ready to take them down if an unfavorable reading came back. Thankfully, a green light flashed and the man moved to scan Sarah.

“She’s the captain of the ship taking us to our destination, so I’m clearing her.” Ben’s words were unnecessary as the scanner beeped green again.

The worker inclined his head toward the hatch and turned back to his work. They never exchanged a single word.

“Intel guys have about as much personality as a bulkhead.” Sarah shot a look at the team over her shoulder.

“They are just doing their job.” He held the door open for her and then sealed it behind them.

Lights flickered on as the sensors identified their presence. Conservation of energy was key in space. Even on one of the biggest non-planetary structures outside of Earth-orbit they did everything they could to not waste any. The lights lead the way to a second hatch. This one was guarded by another marine with sergeant’s chevrons.

“Your GIC please, Sir.”

Ben got scanned again, and got another green light. When the soft green beep filled the air the marine slid his rifle into a clasp on his back and lifted the helmet off his head.

“Nice to finally meet you, Sir.” The marine braced to the position of attention. “I am Sergeant Cassius O’Neil. I’m the squad leader for the Argo’s marine detachment.”

“Nice to meet you, Sergeant.” Ben smiled at the infantryman and told him to relax. “Any updates I should know about?”

“The wrench-turners are finishing up the final checks over the next few days. The XO is already aboard and has worked with logistics to have them transport all of our provisions and gear in by the end of the week. She’s a brand new ship with that new ship smell, Sir. It’s blasphemous to ask for anything more from the good Lord.”

“Um…I suppose it is. Thank you, Sergeant.” The religious reference was a little weird, and Ben made a note to look into the Sergeant later.

“You recognize the accent?” Sarah asked as they opened the second hatch and entered CWS Argo. “I’m surprised you don’t with all your diplomatic studies,” she smirked when he shook his head. “That marine is from The Papal Planets, I’d guess Mark since they tend to supply the most soldiers.”

<Of course.> Ben knew all about the new home of the Roman Catholic Church among the stars.

A single system with four planets: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  It was a member of the Commonwealth, and like most Commonwealth systems was largely left alone as long as they paid their taxes, both monetary and in personnel, and ensured their system’s security was up to standards. Outside of that, the Commonwealth didn’t care what they did religiously, as long as they didn’t try and interfere with other system’s religious laws and freedoms.

He was busy recalling a paper he’d done about integrating recruits from the Papal Planets in the Commonwealth Armed Forces, and the leadership difficulties it could present, when the ship said hello.

“Hello, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold. I am the Commonwealth Warship Argo’s Semi-intelligent ship’s interface. Please designate your voice preferences.”

“What?”

“Please designate voice preferences.”

It didn’t help that the voice coming out of the ship was a sexy, female, Englishwoman. Ben shot a sideways glance at Sarah, who looked like she was ready to burst out laughing.

“You’re a proud daddy now, Ben. You need to name her and then you can make her sound however you want.”

“Designate voice as female, but less…forward…if that make sense.”

“Affirmative, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold.” The ship’s voice lost its sultry husk, and now sounded reasonably professional for a military warship. “Further settings can be designated on your PAD, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold.”

“Please just call me Commander Gold, captain, or skipper.” Ben didn’t want the ship addressing him by his full name and rank every time they talked.

“Yes, Captain. Please designate my identity.”

“What?”

“You’re action to address you by an abbreviation of your full name and rank indicates a preference for brisk communication. Based on that preference my programing is ninety-eight percent confident that you will not wish to address me as the Argo’s semi-intelligent ship’s interface. Please designate my identity, captain.”

Ben looked around for inspiration, but there was only one thing that felt right.

“Designate yourself as…Sarah.”

“Very well, Captain. Please let me know if you require any more information.” The ship went silent.

He turned around with a grin on his face to see the human Sarah standing there with her hands on her hips.

“Really?” She tried to look irritated, but a grin kept pulling at her lips. “You just want to get laid don’t you?”

Ben thought it was best to keep his mouth shut.

“Fine.” She smiled that smile that got him every time. “But we aren’t doing it in this cramped tin can. We’re going to christen my cruiser, Gold. Understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

It was about as good a first day off Earth in an active duty military capacity as he could expect.

<Being a commander certainly has its perks.>

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Two Worlds – Chapter 66

Benjamin Gold

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

“Are you sure I’m allowed to go to this?” Commander Wythe asked for the fifth time. Although, she preferred to be called Sarah on this occasion.

“Of course.” Ben smiled across the back of the luxurious air-limo at her. “Do not let the name of the event fool you.”

A week ago, Ben had invited his mentor, and the woman he had a slight crush on, to be his plus one at the Gold Family Veteran’s Day Celebration. She’d accepted without hesitation, which Ben took as a good sign.

Now, the battle-hardened commander was second guessing herself.

“It has nothing to do with family.” Ben explained. “It is an event that is part party, part meet and greet, part charity, and part excuse for my father to lord his wealth and reputation over everyone’s heads.”

That got a laugh out of his date.

“Ok.” She took a deep breath and smoothed the edges of her uniformed skirt. “I just haven’t celebrated a Veteran’s Day outside a veteran’s hall in a long time.”

Ben’s experience was the exact opposite.

He knew that veteran’s halls were gathering places for veterans partially subsidized by the Ministry of War and the rest by private donations. He had given generously since joining the navy to the halls in New York and London, but he’d never actually been in one before; especially on Veteran’s Day. When he celebrated at all he felt obligated to attend his family’s event.

Veteran’s Day post-expansion was very different from pre-expansion. Before the Last Terran War, Veteran’s Day had been celebrated on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in commemoration of the end of the First Great War. Sadly, World War I didn’t hold a candle to the Last Terran War.

When the dust cleared, the atmospheric scrubbers started to clear away the fallout, and the modern starfaring nations picked themselves back up the holiday was changed. Instead of occurring on November eleventh, Veteran’s Day now took place on June nineteenth. The eve of the most devastating war humanity had ever experienced. Even the various interstellar conflicts between the Commonwealth and Eastern Block didn’t compare.

Veteran’s Day was also a Commonwealth recognized holiday, which gave Ben and Sarah the day off, and led to them sitting in traffic above the Atlantic about fifty miles from New York’s Upper City. It was a good thing that the air-limo was stocked with a full bar. In typical military tradition, Sarah and Ben had started to drink the moment they felt the limo come to a hover, and Geoffrey began his apologetic litany for the unavoidable event.

It gave them a chance to talk.

“You have spent most of your holidays in a hall?” Ben was intrigued.

“Yeah.” Sarah took a sip of her top-shelf whiskey and practically purred. “New Washington has the best. They’ve got food, enough booze to drown a battleship crew, and free VR entertainment.” She giggled at a memory.

Ben smiled too. It was nice to see a different side of the commander who constantly schooled him in VR scenarios and set near impossible standards.

“A lot of the people use it for porn, but most are smart enough to clear the cache before the next person comes in.” She laughed, and it sounded like spring church bells. “And that’s how I found out a retired captain had a particular fetish, which I was then able to leverage for a letter of recommendation that got me my first XO slot.”

“No, you did not.” Ben laughed along with her. “That sounds like a violation of our warrior ethos Commander Wythe.” He leaned back and sipped his own ridiculously expensive scotch.

“That’s the game.” Sarah replied, her eyes twinkling mischievously. “But I can’t lecture you about it. You’ve already got a command at your age and rank.” She motioned to the red stripe on his formal uniform. “I should probably be taking notes.”

Unlike the CMUs that soldiers and spacers routinely wore as their daily uniform, tonight’s events called for something a lot more formal. Most service members didn’t even bother purchasing the expensive and antiquated formal dress-blue uniform because unless you were flag rank or a very senior NCO the chances you’d ever wear one were slim to none. Dress CMUs usually cut it for everyone else.  Ben knew from previous parties that his father and the guests expected formal military dress. Luckily, Sarah had a set and had it up to standard.

The formal uniforms were a throwback to a long-lost age of military decorum. The modern uniform was smart and digitized. Service members didn’t need to spend hours making sure their uniform was perfect when they needed to be thinking about winning wars against a trained and determined enemy. Now, all you had to do was stick CMUs to your body and stand there. It was that simple.

The formal uniform was made of modern fabric, but it wasn’t smart. For males, it consisted of navy blue trousers with rank stripes, a white dress shirt, a bow tie, and a navy-blue jacket. For females, it was the same except the trousers were a knee length skirt. Both uniforms replaced the CMU boots with shiny black dress shoes.

All awards were actual medals which had to be spaced appropriately according to a regulation most didn’t even know existed. Name plates and unit designators were also present.

Sarah made the uniform look good. Not only because she was an attractive, fit woman, but also because she’d actually done things. She had a respectable row of medals over her left breast. The only thing Ben had that distinguished him as mildly important was the red command stripe. He only had a few medals, which looked insignificant next to the accomplished commanders.

Then again, they’d both be put to shame when they finally made it to the party.

The air-limo lurched and they began to accelerate enough that liquid almost sloshed out of Ben’s glass.

“They’ve opened up a VIP lane, Master Gold.” Geoffrey announced from the front.

“Thank you.”

<About time.> Ben thought as he looked out his window and saw the rear thrusters from a swarm of Spyder Assault Shuttles.

There were people far more important than a lowly lieutenant commander and commander attending the event.

The event itself was taking place at one of the large reception halls in the Upper City. Usually, these venues were used for stockholders’ meetings, corporate retreats, or any number of high priced gatherings. Tonight, the docking platform was draped in the blue and gold of the Commonwealth Armed Forces. Flags stood everywhere blowing in the wind, including several flags with the four or five golden stripes of admirals. Those flags went with those officers everywhere.

Sarah saw those flags, her eyes bugged out, and she quickly downed the last of her drink. “Don’t let me drink anymore for a little while.” She gripped his arm hard as they exited their limo.

Photographers from various news outlets snapped photos of everyone coming and going from the event. Ben wasn’t sure what they’d use the pictures for. It could be just another fluff piece or more likely an anti-elite indictment. Either way, a good picture would sell subscriptions.

“Are there always this many people?” Sarah’s eyes continued to bulge as they walked with a small crowd into a main hall that could fill thousands.

Expensive, hovering crystal chandeliers bounced light throughout the room. Rare and expensive artwork, donated by the wealthy attendees, adorned the gold-plated walls. The place was gaudy and lavished to the extreme. Ben didn’t like it, but he expected it.

“Benjamin!” A voice called out from nearby and a crowd parted to let the matriarch of the family through.

“Hello, mother.” Ben kissed Miranda Gold on her cheek.

“I’m so glad you could make it.” She held him at arm’s length and then turned to Sarah. “And who have you brought with you?” She smiled in a way that only a mother without grandchildren could.

“Mother, this is Commander Sarah Wythe. Sarah, this is my mother, Miranda Gold.”

Sarah had a solid fifteen centimeters on the shorter woman, but Miranda was clearly the dominant personality. You could see it in the body language. Sarah automatically deferred to Miranda. It was animalistic in nature.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Sarah.”

“No, I can’t believe I’m meeting you.” Sarah practically blabbered. “I’ve been following your career for years. The case you argued before Earth’s Supreme Court about employee benefits rights was incredible.”

Miranda’s smile brightened the room. “Thank you. I didn’t know anybody read or listened to those things.”

“I work in personnel, Ma’am.” Sarah regained control after her fan-girl gushing. “It’s always a good idea to keep up with what’s going on in the civilian world and how that might impact our talent management.”

“Very true.” Miranda gave Ben a sidelong look that said, <I approve.>

Which was something a young man didn’t want to see from his mother on something that wasn’t really a date.

“We’ll have to catch up and talk more. It was a pleasure to meet you, Sarah. Now I need to go make the rounds.”

“Nice to meet you too.” Sarah bounced up and down on her toes. Then she turned on Ben and looked like she was going to smack him in the arm. “You never told me that Miranda Gold was your mother.”

“You never asked.” Ben didn’t really know what to say. “And it’s all in my file.”

She ignored his excuse and continued to survey the hall.

“Shall we?” Ben extended his arm for her to take and started to expertly weave her through the crowd of social elites.

The trick to impressing these people was always remembering who they were and have a quick one-liner to say about them. PADs made it easy to do this, but making sure that person didn’t see you were looking at your PAD to remember them was the trick. Being in the military always helped with this. Since Ben was slated for deployment he’d been on the list to get upgraded to a sub-dermal PAD.

The upgrade, which didn’t interfere with the use of a standard polyplast PAD, turned Ben’s forearm into a biological screen. When wearing his CMUs the data would be transmitted through the smart fabric. In the formal dress uniform a quick watch-checking motion and Ben was able to get the approaching socialites information.

“Benny, you made it!” The voice immediately grated on Ben’s nerves.

“Are we really going to do this here.” Another voice drawled.

“Just be nice, Dillion.” A third chimed in.

Suddenly, Ben found himself surrounded by the rest of the Gold children. Dillion stood there smirking like an idiot. Lillian looked bored and slightly drunk with her silver skin gleaming, and Hope looked defensive. She didn’t want the family gathering turning ugly right away.

“Always nice to see you, Dillion.” It took everything Ben had to take the high road.

“Lillian, Hope.” He gave his sister and half-sister kisses on the cheek, and pulled Hope in for a long hug. “Everyone, this is Commander Sarah Wythe. Sarah, this is my sister Hope, my half-sister Lillian, and my half-brother Dillion.”

“How did Benny get such a gorgeous date?” Dillion smirked, taking Sarah’s hand and brushing his lips against it.

Thankfully, Sarah didn’t seem the least bit interested in the guy kissing her hand.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold and I know each other from work,” she replied, turning her attention to Hope and Lillian. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Dillion got the clue quickly that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with Sarah, so he disappeared into the crowd to annoy someone else. Surprisingly, she hit it off quickly with Lillian and Hope. Apparently, Sarah had a deeper fashion knowledge than Ben thought possible from anyone who knew the specifications of a battlecruiser by memory. Sarah was also honestly interested in the new education initiative Hope was helping the family business with.

Both of his sisters gave him the same approving glance that their mother had.

“Benjamin.” His father seemed to appear out of thin air, which was an accomplishment since Curtis was his constant shadow and was even bigger than Ben.

“Father.” Their greeting was stiff. They hadn’t talked since their agreement was made several months ago.

“Please come with me. There is someone I’d like you to meet.”

Ben knew better than to make a scene, so he quickly excused himself and followed his father to a small gathering of men in navy-blue uniforms.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” Thomas Gold called out.

The group turned and Ben recognized Rear Admiral Helms, now a Rear Admiral promotable. Ben’s father’s leverage was enough to get the man the votes he needed to get his fifth stripe. Helms gave Ben a brief nod.

The small group consisted of the senior staff of First Fleet and its commander, Admiral Duvall.

“Gentlemen, this is my son. Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold.”

Ben felt like his head was on the chopping block, and his father had purposefully put it there.

The Rear Admirals and Admiral scrutinized him like a piece of livestock before Helms finally saved him. “Offering up your youngest son as the sacrificial lamb for the sake of a conversation starter. I’d hate to ever negotiate against you, Thomas.” That got the group laughing, and took the attention away from Ben.

“Can’t a father want his son to meet the boss. I’m told a junior officer rarely gets to make an impression on a flag officer.”

“That’s true.” Admiral Duvall spoke up and silenced his staff. “It’s nice to meet you Lieutenant Commander. You’re dismissed.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ben had to remind himself not to salute and did a perfect about-face and marched away from the senior fleet brass in the Sol System.

<I am going to kill him.> Ben fumed as he made his way over to the bar.

Things could have been a lot worse if he wasn’t shipping out to a whole different fleet soon. Admiral Duvall was an old school hardass known for not liking the thing Ben’s father had just done. There was no question that Thomas Gold knew that, which meant he was making sure to cut any strings to the fleet Ben might have once their deal was complete. Thomas wanted his son with Gold Technologies when this was all over, and he was willing to piss off a full admiral to do it.

<I cannot wait to get out of here.> Ben accepted the scotch and whiskey he’d ordered and headed back to where he’d left Sarah.

She wasn’t there when he arrived.

“Hope, where is Sarah?”

“Out on the veranda,” she replied, pointing across the room.

Ben carved a path through the party’s attendees to get to the French double-doors. The veranda was still crowded, but it was cool and had clean air thanks to the scrubber and AC dedicated specifically to this space. It was as lavishly decorated as the rest of the hall, so they couldn’t have it smelling like a sewer.

He found Sarah leaning against a wrought-iron railing and looking out over the Upper City.

“Hey.” He handed her the whiskey and joined her. “It’s a great view.” He stated when the silence became awkward. “I always loved the view when…”

“Oh shut up.” She silenced him by grabbing the front of his jacket, pulling him in close, and kissing him.

Ben didn’t even think. He kissed her back.

Military standards, societal implications, their working relationship; he ignored them all because he’d wanted to do this for a very long time.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 52

Benjamin Gold

Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“What time shall I return, Master Gold?” Geoffrey, the family butler, expertly parked the luxurious air-car on the landing pad next to the Commonwealth Headquarters in downtown London.

Ben already had the door open and was exiting the vehicle. If you sat still more than a few seconds in the landing area air-cars began to back up for blocks. A lot of those air-cars belonged to people who outranked a lowly lieutenant commander, so Ben always made sure to hustle.

“Seventeen-thirty will be fine, Geoffrey. I will call if something changes.” Ben slid the door into place without waiting for a response and began to walk quickly toward the main entrance to the building.

Normally, two heavy infantry soldiers stood guard at the entrance, but today there were four. That meant one of two things. Either someone important was coming to visit or there was a heighten security posture. It didn’t matter much to Ben, most of his day was going to be spent in Commander Wythe’s office going over the engineering manuals on gravitic impellers. Despite Ben’s heightened general intelligence, the engines that used gravity to propel Commonwealth warships through space were outside his wheelhouse. He was not an engineer, and he would never be an engineer; but he still needed to pass the basic qualification.

<I will worry about that after my briefing.>

Apparently, despite losing most of his audience during his original briefing on the Star Kingdom of Windsor, the senior officers loved it. Now, as part of the out-processing of everyone heading off to York Sector they had to sit through Ben’s hour long lecture. Naturally, after nearly putting dozens of people to sleep, Ben had changed the material a little bit. The holo presentation still talked about criteria such as power distance and individualism vs. collectivism, but Ben had modified it to fit his military audience.

He still talked about the strict hierarchy in the Star Kingdom, but he related it more to things the most junior soldiers and spacers in the crowd would understand. Now he talked about how the Star Kingdom military was culturally honed to not question orders. For the most part they were loyal to a fault. He also discussed how the generally collectivist culture of the lower tiers of the hierarchy made them more likely to sacrifice for the greater good of the Kingdom while the high ranks were more likely to look through the scope of individualism or career advancement.

These new points went over much better than the original presentation, and it even got his audience discussing strengths and weaknesses of the society. Strengths they would have to look out for and weaknesses they could exploit in a military engagement.

Ben was feeling pretty confident as he walked into his normal briefing room at 0900.

When he walked out at 1015 he felt like someone had dropped an anvil on his head. There’d been more senior officers in the briefing than before. One Captain in particular seemed to think it was his personal mission in life to deconstruct everything Ben was saying and try to disprove it. Since Ben had only done a surface level review of the culture, there were obvious holes in his presentation. Holes that were acceptable to his normal audience. These holes could have been filled with additional research, but research took time, and time was something Ben did not have in abundance.

Ben left the briefing room with a new personal hatred and a festering headache. Thankfully, he kept some aspirin in Commander Wythe’s office. Reading FMs and TMs tended to have that effect on the brain.

The Personnel Department was its usual hustle and bustle of organized chaos. Ben weaved his way through the torrent of moving bodies, only nearly knocking over one diminutive PO3 who looked ready to tear him a new one before seeing his gold stripe, a solid seventy centimeters, and at least forty kilos of mass difference. The stout NCO still walked away fuming.

Commander Wythe wasn’t in yet so Ben took his customary seat at the table and pulled up the engineering FM for gravity plates.

Grav-plates were scattered throughout ships and were the primary components in the impeller drives. There were more mathematic equations than words in this FM, but thankfully most of them were built into the diagnostic systems. Someone would need a week and a Ph.D. in Physics to do it by hand.

<So the plates exert opposing gravitational forces onto each other that need to be carefully calibrated in order to achieve everything from Earth-like gravity within vessels to the thrust necessary to move them.> That was the basic gist of what Ben got from the much more complex wording of the FM.

The gist was all Ben needed. What was really important was the maintenance. <A routine daily diagnostic followed by a thorough thirty day maintenance to troubleshoot and correct any deficiencies.> Ben put those timeframes into his mental banks. They would be on the exam for sure.

He was just digging into the physical handling of the grav-plates when Commander Wythe burst into the office. She wasn’t running, because an officer running around her own section usually meant the sky was falling, but she was moving with a purpose.

“I’ve got your birthday present, Gold.”

Commander Wythe rarely had an organic, sincere smile on her face. She played the political game of the Fleet Headquarters, so she was always smiling around senior officers; but Ben rarely saw a true smile on her face. It was a shame, because Sarah Wythe had a beautiful smile.

Ben knew from experience that the Commander shied away from using anything close to feminine wiles to advance her career. And she didn’t need to. After spending just a few weeks under her tutelage Ben realized that she was a brilliant tactician, strong leader, and just a fascinating person. It didn’t help that Ben found her good looking, and constantly working with her was starting to affect his professional judgment. He couldn’t stop his crush on the woman, but he could keep it under control.

Technically, they weren’t under the same chain of command, so asking her out on a date wouldn’t be against regulation. But he valued their teacher-mentor relationship too much to put it in jeopardy.

<Bad timing.> He kept reminding himself. But that didn’t mean it didn’t sting a little.

“My birthday was earlier this month. And in case you have forgotten I received command of a fresh out of the yards warship as my birthday present.” Ben still put down the FM and gave her his full attention.

“Really?” she waved aside his rebuttal.

Ben’s attention shifted from her smile to her cute dimples before he was able to refocus his attention.

“We both know it wasn’t the Commonwealth. You made a deal with the devil.”

Ben had told her all about his father and their deal while she got him ready to take command.

“What I’m giving you is much more valuable to your current studies.” She held up an onyx black box in both hands like it was a precious, fragile jewel. “I’ve got a contact down in Supply, and they were able to get this. As the future skipper you’re authorized.”

The box scanned Ben’s GIC and popped open silently. Ben reached inside and gingerly removed a square data-chip about the size of the tip of his pinky. It was obviously important, but Ben still wasn’t quite sure how important. Judging by her expression he needed to insert it into his PAD right now.

Commander Wythe stood there still grinning as Ben grabbed his PAD from the leg pocket on his CMUs. The port practically sucked the chip in the moment it was close.

ACCESS DENIED. SHIELD ROOM NOT DETECTED.

“Shield room?” She bent over Ben’s shoulder. Her shoulder length auburn hair smelling faintly of lavender.  “Since when do ship schematics need a shield room?”

“You got me my ship’s schematics?” Ben asked in surprise.

This really was a treat.

“Of course,” she said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I want you to go into command more knowledgeable about your boat than anyone else.”

Ben had an overwhelming desire to kiss the senior officer, but he restrained himself.

“Well. . .um. . .thank you.” He honestly didn’t know what to say. “We need to get to a shield room then.”

The Fleet’s security protocols and electronic systems were state of the art, especially at a Fleet headquarters. Still, cyberwarfare between the Commonwealth, Eastern Block, and to a lesser degree the European Union was more common on Earth than anywhere else in human explored space. That’s what happened when you all lived under one roof in only one place in the galaxy.

Whatever was on the small data-chip that Commander Wythe procured there were additional security measures required to open it. It was sensitive enough that no one wanted to take any chances. Thus the shield room.

A shield room was a room that stopped all electronic means of communication from entering or exiting. It accomplished this on an atomic level, and was the most secure defense procedure in a galaxy dominated by wireless networks. In accordance with Fleet regulations every department had a shield room, and the Personnel Department’s was down a hallway with an unarmored soldier standing guard next to it.

“Please sign the log.” The stone-faced private’s expression didn’t change as the two officers stopped in front of him.

Ben and Commander Wythe both scanned their GICs and were allowed to enter.

The room looked just like any other conference room. Ben had been in here enough times during his tenure with the department that the only thing he noticed was the chime of lost connectivity from his PAD when the soldier closed the door behind them.

“Ok.” The commander was visibly excited now. “What’s the big secret?”

Ben placed his PAD on the table, physically linking it with the holo-display. He scanned his GIC again, and the screen sprang to life with a blue and white depiction of a Commonwealth warship. There was a lot of detail, but his eyes were immediately pulled to the header at the top center of the display.

“The CWS Argo.” Ben felt his chest swell with pride.

<This is my ship.> It was one thing to pour through FMs and engage in VR training, but Ben was actually seeing his future command hover right in front of his eyes.

For a few seconds Ben just took it all in.

“Wow!” Commander Wythe’s exclamation brought Ben out of his silent revelry. “They’ve done a lot of work to this class of gunboats, the Seafaring Class. May I?” She requested the PAD and Ben handed it over.

“Let’s start with structural.” She made a pulling apart motion that zoomed in on the dagger-shaped ship. “The actual layout of the gunboat looks the same. You’ve got your main cannon on the tip of the ship here. Behind that is a meter-thick armored wall. That way if you take a shot right down the throat you might just lose that compartment.” It was a cold way to look at the situation but that was war.

“Behind that armored hatch you’ve got the crew quarters and rec area.” She pointed at a chunk of the ship that was about a third of the entire space.

That might seem like a lot, but in a small gunboat that was the definition of cramped. “Rec is a catch-all term meaning everything from personal recreation to mess hall. The bridge is behind the crew area, but you see this.” She pointed at where two corridors seemed to split and wrap around a central sphere. “The bridge is a self-contained environment encased in a two-meter thick ball of duro-steel. The idea being that if the rest of the ship gets trashed the bridge will hopefully survive. And if everything goes to hell there are life pods just outside the hatch.”

“Seems to be tactically solid thinking.” Ben had been sitting silently as she reviewed the schematics. He’d only ever been on the bridge in VR.

“Behind the bridge section is the armory and storage bay. This is Marine country. The only reason you’ll pass through there is to get to the main docking hatch. Just let the marines do their thing back there. They’ll spend most of the cruise tinkering with their armor and getting pissed off. When you find a bad guy just let them loose.”

The advice was a little more hands-off than Ben was comfortable with, but he’d take it under advisement.

“The last third of the ship is engineering’s turf.” She finished the general outline of the ship.

“Let’s see what’s new. . .and Hello!” She pointed emphatically at the hull of the ship. “Do you see this latticework here.” She stabbed her finger into the virtual hull and what looked like hundreds of tic-tac-toe boards “If I’m reading this right they’ve reinforced the three-meter duro-steel hull with carbon nannotubing. That’s going to make the Argo a tough nut to crack. And yup. . .you have the coating of nanite armor on top of it.”

Ben watched as she sighed heavily with a wanting expression. “You’re a lucky man, Gold. She’s a beauty. And we haven’t even gotten to the weapons systems yet.” She hit a few buttons and the view changed. “And of course you’re going to be the captain of the best armed gunboat in Commonwealth history.” She shot him a good-natured glare.

“You’ve got four missile tubes on each broadside, that’s double previous gunboats. You’ve also got two two-hundred terawatt lasers, that’s more punch and an additional laser.” She rotated the view and focused on the dagger’s tip of the ship. “You’re nose cannon is five-hundred terrawatts, holy shit!”

Ben looked up in surprise from the specs. He rarely heard Commander Wythe curse.

“That’s just shy of a destroyer’s broadside cannon. The yard monkeys have given Argo some serious juice. They must have made some serious upgrade or had a breakthrough in miniaturization to make that happen.”

Ben watched with a bemused expression as she dug into the technical details of the power plants that fed energy into the weapons systems. By the hand gestures it looked like the Commonwealth was making some headway in weapons technology that she understood a lot better than him.

“You’ve got more railguns than before.” She pointed out the raised portions that looked like metallic pimples on the otherwise smooth ship. “I’m counting twenty per side, but that’s just because Argo is longer.” She squinted at some numbers down at the bottom. “Argo is a hundred and twenty-five meters long and weighs in at seventy-five hundred tons. That’s the biggest, badest gunboat I’ve ever seen.” She practically fell into the seat. She looked exhausted.

Ben saw an opportunity and he took it.

“I am sure she will be in the system for a while when the crew gets settled. I would love to have you come up and take a look.”

Ben didn’t know if she totally missed the veiling invitation of a quasi-date, but her smile was blinding and full of renewed excitement.

“That would be fantastic!”

“Ok then.” Ben smiled back. The excitement was contagious. “I have a good relationship with the skipper, I do not think he will mind.”

Commander Wythe rolled her eyes and looked ready to give him a snappy response when something on the schematic caught her eye. “What’s that?”

Ben swiped the screen and scrolled down to a blacked-out section of text. “I do not know.” Ben leaned forward in his chair and started entering commands into his PAD.

PLEASE RECONFIRM AUTHORIZATION.

Ben scanned his GIC again. His PAD beeped in confirmation and then a blue line of light shot out of the PAD and scanned the room.

ADDITIONAL PERSON DETECTED. PLEASE AUTHENTICATE.

“This is unusual.” Commander Wythe held out her GIC to be scanned.

COMMANDER WYTHE, SARAH B. SFSJS0921239375234, TS CLEARANCE CONFIRMED

The darkened text block dissolved into legible code and they both spent several second deciphering it. Ben saw her plain brown eyes narrow in confusion.

“Semi-Intelligent Ship’s Interface, SISI,” she pronounced the acronym “Sissy”.

“I have never heard of that.” Ben scratched his head, digging through all the FM knowledge he’d absorbed in the last few weeks.

He came up with nothing.

“I’ve been in the Fleet for eighteen years and I’ve never heard of a ship’s interface before.” She leaned back and pulled a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. “Well at least we know why the data on this chip requires a shield room.

“Yes.” Ben frowned. “That’s standard procedure for new prototype systems.”

The information was a double-edged sword for Ben. He had the ability to really prove himself with a thorough testing of the new equipment, but if he screwed up he’d never get another command again; and that included command of a diplomatic mission.

<As my father would say. Go big or go home.> Ben really didn’t have any other choice.

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