Two Worlds – Chapter 206

Benjamin Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Berg?” Cunningham turned to Eve.

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

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

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

“Well…” Coop pondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 205

Noah Grisham

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

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

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

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

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

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

THUMP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And, Smitty…”

“Yeah…”

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

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

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 204

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two hundred,” he stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

Benjamin Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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