Two Worlds – Chapter 266

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Coop, the SGM, and Sullivan advanced down the hallway. The other SGT and SGM led the way, moving quickly but cautiously, as they checked doors and covered their advance. Coop made sure no one snuck up and shot them in the ass. They’d taken the guards at the side entrance by surprise, but a well-prepared force with the Windsor’s level of technology would be able to put up a fight even against the three of them.

Their mission was simple: find the captured SRRT members and get them to safety while breaking important Windsor stuff in the process.

“Clear,” the SGM tried a door, stuck his head in really quickly, and found no one waiting for them. “This way.”

The team had a map of the palace from a disgruntled former employee who’d worked on the governor’s staff before the invasion and was now in the rebellion. She had good intel on the main floors, but the Windsor’s wouldn’t be keeping a bunch of captured Commonwealth soldiers in a penthouse suite. The woman knew where they needed to go, but didn’t know what they’d find when they got there.

“Twenty meters, take a right, and it is the third door on the left,” the SGM relayed as they approached the turn in the corridor. They rounded the corner and were instantly met by incoming fire.

Coop’s shield registered the hit, but by the time he turned around the SGM and Sullivan had already mowed down the two, lightly-armed Windsor’s guarding the door to their target.

The SGM tried the door and it didn’t budge. He put a solid kick into it next, and that left nothing but a boot shaped dent in the heavy material. “Breech,” he ordered, and Coop came forward with left over explosives from their sabotage missions earlier in the week.

His LACS showed him the best place to put the charges, so all he had to do is dial in the frequency detonation and backpedal to the bend in the hallway. “If they didn’t know we were here before they sure as shit will now,” he muttered to himself as the SGM nodded and he sent the detonation code.

The whole hallway rumbled and a puff of dust and debris shot out in front of them. They quickly advanced forward to the blasted open door. It led to a wide stairway leading down.

“Violence of action,” the SGM offered three words of advice as he activated his grav-boots. A soft hum filled the air as he hovered off the ground and then shot down the stairs twice as fast as an armored man could run. When he found the enemy, they wouldn’t know what hit them.

Coop shrugged, activated his own boots, and followed the NCOIC into the darkness that was methodically interrupted by pulsing, red emergency lights.

 

***

 

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

“Come on you fat bitch!” ADM Ward grabbed and pulled the side of his command chair like his feeble yanking would help the kilometer-long assault carrier to turn faster.

The engagement with the Windsor forces had quickly disintegrated into madness. The enemy didn’t follow the traditional rules of combat. They didn’t slug it out for the million-kilometer distances that was the standard naval warfare practice. A few salvos had been exchanged, but then the Windsor’s modern warships made a kamikaze turn and plunged straight toward the heart of his formation.

He didn’t have long to figure out what to do. He’d watched the same thing unfold with Carrier Group Delta. The Windsor’s had exchanged a few distanced blows to test the Commonwealth’s new capabilities before diving right into the heart of the carrier group. The RADM in charge of Delta made them pay for it, but the intense pounding that would have turned any fleet ship into wreckage a few years ago, only managed to overwhelm a small number of ships. Then the real fight was on.

As a student of naval history, Ward had images of Trafalgar flashing through his mind. Were the Windsor’s Nelson while he was the French? <No.> he swatted the thought aside. His ships weren’t constrained by wind and sail. He could maneuver freely to counter his enemy.

He watched Delta’s struggle closely for any trends or strategy. The massive battleships were holding their own, but the smaller vessels were getting pounded to star dust. There were far too many greyed-out icons on his holo-tank, and that number was sure to keep on climbing. Communications were also spotty. The distance was part of the problem as STARTNET and TACCOM were delayed, and the QE system just wasn’t prepared for the bandwidth of fleet battle communication. Also, as the Windsor’s got closer, jamming came into effect, which made it even more difficult.

As Delta’s battle dissolved into a free-for-all, Ward adapted. He broke up his carrier group further. He clustered the smaller ships around his battleships and assault carrier to create more reinforced targets. He then put the battleship captains in charge of their mini-flotillas because he knew this was about to get up close and personal. Whatever the Windsor’s knew about fighting with this new tech, he was about to learn the hard way. He’d done everything he could think of. Now it was time for the crews to fight the ships and emerge victorious.

When the Windsor’s dived further into his weapon’s envelope he let them have it. He fired tens of thousands of missiles right down their throats. He was dealing with a smaller force than Delta Group, and it showed. He broke nearly half the ships before they got into knife fight range, which in 25th century naval warfare meant within three hundred thousand kilometers. Or, as he found out from one brutal second to the next, energy weapons range of the Windsor’s powerful cannons.

Alarms screamed as the remaining cruisers blasted cannon’s far too powerful for their class into his ships. Two battlecruisers crumbled under the blows. Just like that, over three thousand Commonwealth spacers and marines were erased from existence. Worst of all, after those cannons recharged, they did it again. A trio of cruisers just exploded, while another battlecruiser listed out of formation, dead in the water.

“All units, get behind the shielded ships!” The order came out frantic because it was. The power behind those energy cannons was something he hadn’t seen before out of battleships, much less cruisers, and there was no countermeasure to something that took less than a second to reach you. If he ordered evasive maneuvers he’d be just as up shit’s creek as Delta. The only thing to do was use his shields and mass to protect his spacers.

“I said turn you fat bitch!” he punched his armchair because some physical connection to Aggie was necessary.

“Guns, can we increase our output on our energy cannons?” he sent to the gunnery chief at the tactical station, bypassing the younger, less-experienced OIC.

“If we removed safeties and overcharged capacitors, we could get another ten percent, maybe fifteen,” there was a lot of hesitation in the man’s voice. “If we do then we run the risk of blowing out the power lines or melting the cannons themselves. We’re built for missile engagements, not this up-close blasting.” The CPO was clearly frustrated. It was his job to kill the enemy, and the enemy was proving move difficult than usual.

“When we complete the turn I want a full broadside with everything: supped-up cannons, shotgun missiles, railguns, hell, throw the fucking kitchen sink at them while you’re at it!” he snapped as he watched the Windsor ships dispersing slightly to engage his four weakened mini-groups. Specifically, one battlecruiser, two cruisers, and a couple destroyers were making a break for his assault carrier. That was the lion’s share of the enemy. They knew the assault carrier was the prize.

“Commander,” he opened a private line to the marine brigade commander. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m stuck in a tin can, surrounded by nothingness, while you squids shoot this shit out without me. How do you think I feel?” The woman on the other end sounded just a tiny bit bitter.

“Who knows, maybe…?”

“Capacitors overloaded, missiles in the tubs, and guns trained on the enemy. Distance in two hundred and eighty nine thousand kilometers and closing. We’ll be lined up for a shot in three…two…one…”

CWS Agincourt present her broadside to the enemy formation barreling through space to kill her. “Fire everything!” he yelled, and the ship shuddered as it let loose its deadly cargo.

The results were nearly instantaneous.

Both cruisers shuddered under the force of Aggie’s enhanced blows. One went careening to starboard and diving below the elliptical to get away from any more fire. The second cruiser lost power and the next second exploded. This close to the enemy, Ward could see the explosion with his own two eyes.

The battlecruiser fared better, but it was still damaged. Sensors showed air and people venting out of the largest enemy ship, but it kept on coming into the storm of missiles Aggie fired. The majority of the missiles were originally targeted on it, and some of the ones meant for the cruisers were able to reorient onto the more pressing threat.

The shotgun missiles exploded and sent duro-steel penetrators rocketing toward the battlecruisers at a percentage of the speed of light. The cone of dispersion was determined at detonation, so there weren’t any last-minute adjustments. Still, a good portion of space was filled with ballistic metal, which hit the enemy ship with tremendous force.

In front of his eyes, Ward saw the enemy ship start to come apart as its shields were overwhelmed by his cannons and missile fire. Cheers erupted around the bridge as the smaller ships started to break off.

“Send the other formations our recipe for success, and then plot a course for whoever needs our help the most.” He sat back in his chair and exhaled. The enemy destroyers were still firing, but Aggie’s shields were more than capable of taking those hits for the rest of the formation’s sake. “Guns?”

“You managed to slag half a dozen cannons, Admiral. Capacitors are rebooting, so we have at least ninety seconds before the next shots can ever charge. Give it three to five minutes before we can engage again.” It didn’t sound like much, but three to five minutes was enough time for the enemy ships to close to within a few thousand kilometers. Aggie might be able to get in a second shot before the Windsor’s rammed into her.

That was a design flaw he needed to take up with the construction crews working on building and refitting the upgraded fleet. The new power plants didn’t mean shit if you couldn’t fire the more powerful blasts.

<I’m sure the tree-things can advise on what to do.> He didn’t like aliens knowing so much about the Commonwealth fleet’s combat capabilities, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

“Sir,” his thought was cut short by one of the EW techs.

“Spit it out lieutenant?” he wanted to make sure people followed their department’s chain of command to avoid madness on the bridge, but there was something in the young man’s tone.

“I’m getting weird readings from the debris,” the LT stated and forwarded the images to the ADM.

Ward took a close look at the sensor scan. The battlecruiser was steadily coming apart under the G’s it was pulling, but things just didn’t stop in space. The debris were continuing at their trajectory and speed and would until they met something to stop them. That wouldn’t be Aggie, she was already moving away to assist in another battle, but the battlecruiser had been adjusting to come at them when still alive, so the debris would pass within twenty-thousand kilometers. That was spitting distance.

There were some power fluctuations in the sensor data, but it wasn’t unheard of as a ship died and its integrity broke down. Power was bound to spike and drain in several places.

“Run another scan and tell me…” he didn’t get to finish his sentence.

“Engine signatures!” a petty officer yelled as new targets appeared on the holo-tank.

“What the hell,” the ADM watched as the ship’s AI ran the numbers. Whatever these things were, they were small and headed right for Aggie.

“Give me a visual and reorient railguns,” he ordered and a screen came to life showing space and the crumbling battlecruisers as a rapidly receding backdrop.

“LT what am I…” it was tough to see, but he caught a glimpse and zoomed in.

Small T-shaped ships raced away from the battlecruiser and toward his command. They triggered something in his memory, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

“Cross reference against known enemy vessels,” he ordered the AI. A second later his holo-tank beeps and footage from one of the Commonwealth’s worst defeats came alive in front of him.

It was a dusty landscape, and the footage came from an infantry grunt running to a prepared fighting position. The footage was still crystal clear as the enemy ships broke through the atmosphere, sizzled with energy as land-based cannons failed to destroy them before they embedded themselves into the crust of New Lancashire.

“Concentrate fire on the enemy ships!” he ordered as realization hit him.

“Sir, capacitors are still resetting we’ve got no energy weapons at all, including point defense,” the CPO at the gunnery station had an I-told-you-so tone. “Missiles are locked and loaded, but they’re too close.

“Railguns, turn those things into scrap metal!” he ordered as the gunnery NCO shrugged.

Aggie shuddered as the railguns in range opened up on the Windsor’s troop transports. Every second counted, and the enemy pilots knew that.

“Shield fluctuations,” the EW LT informed. “They’re diverting power to their forward shields.”

Ward saw it as the railgun rounds sparked blue against the ships but didn’t penetrate. “Keep firing. They’ll have to hit us at an angle,” he drew lines on the holo tank to show the shallow angle the enemy ships would have to overtake the assault carrier and hit its hull. “Be ready to light up their flanks when they pass here.” A red line appeared on the holo and a countdown clock began ticking down next to it. The rail guns that would take the kill shots flashed green as they acknowledged receipt of their targeting designations.

Ward knew the enemy would reconfigure their shields to counter, but even a split second was enough for a round to get through and tear open those ships.

“Sir, how are they going to get through our shields?” The EW LT asked.

“They seem to think they can,” Ward wasn’t sure himself, but the enemies had more experience with shields than the Commonwealth. “Get any readings coming off those things and archive them for further investigation,” he switched circuits. “Commander, looks like your marines are going to get in this fight after all. Have them arm up and cover the areas I’m sending you now.” He transmitted a section of the ship where the Windsor’s were going to land.

“On it,” was all the CMDR said before getting to work.

Seventy-five seconds passed between identifying the enemy transports and when they reached Aggie. Twenty-two ships were identified. Only two were knocked out by the railguns firing right into their strengthened shields before they crossed the red line on the holo. The rail gunners pounded them good as they passed over sections of Aggie and had to reconfigure their shields. Fifteen more ships died in that onslaught. The five remaining ships hit Aggie’s shield and the protective barrier held for a few seconds before a violent fluctuation allowed the enemy ships through before resetting.

Agincourt, prepare to rebel borders!” he ordered as the ship shuddered when the enemy vessels burrowed into her hull.

<Now it’s up to the marines.> He never liked handing the battle over to the ground pounders, especially when it was still happening in space.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

Coop skated around a bend in the subterranean palace basement. He went nearly horizontal as he trained his weapon down the hallway. Flashes from the SGM’s Buss were already lighting up the area as he drove back the enemy guard detachment.

“Fuck…kill…prison…” one guard yelled out as a plasma-tipped round took him in the throat and burned through to separate his head form his body. The SGM just skated right over him.

{Magnify.} Coop brought himself up short and dropped to the ground. Skating around on the grav-boots was great, but it didn’t offer the most stable firing position.

The end of the hallway jumped forward as the Buss’ scope engaged. The remaining guards were headed for a room at the end of the hallway. Coop set his sights on the doorway knowing full well that if he missed, the guards were going to cut down Eve and the rest of the captured SRRT team.

<No pressure.> He breathed and pulled the trigger.

The round hit the guard in the shoulder and spun him around. He might not be dead but he was hurting. The only other guard that the SGM and Sullivan hadn’t killed made a beeline for the door. Coop’s next round took the man in the head. There was no question he was dead.

“Move!” Coop’s exasperated yell wasn’t needed as the SGM and Sullivan swarmed into the room. Coop ran the rest of the way feeling like an idiot for not being at the front of the assault to rescue Eve.

His armored bulk smashed into the doorframe, deforming it slightly as he pushed his way through. He ended up in what looked like a prison cafeteria, but the place didn’t matter. It was the people inside it.

Thankfully, all the guards were accounted for. The one Coop had winged was on the floor with a deadly dent in his skull. Eve and the GYSGT stood above him with dead man’s weapon in the GYSGT’s hand.

“Clear!” The SGM and Sullivan had methodically cleared the room. Coop turned his back to them and looked back the way they’d come. “Hallway clear,” he called back.

“Coop?” the voice was weak, but he’d know it anywhere.

He knew he was supposed to be watching the hallway, but he couldn’t not turn to her.

“Hey boss-lady,” he replied with barely restrained anger.

She looked like shit. She looked like she’d been tortured, so he was really upset the guard wasn’t still alive because he needed to beat someone to death.

She heard the tone and frowned. “Nothing a little R&R can’t fix,” she tried to sound relaxed, but it didn’t help.

“You can kiss and make up later,” the GYSGT interjected herself into the conversation. “Grab us weapons so we can get the hell out of here.”

“Glad you’re alive, Gunney,” Coop added as an afterthought despite the sense of relief that flooded through him at seeing her again.

“Is that my armor?” she stopped what she was doing and looked closely at him.

“Ummm nope,” he made a quick exit to grab the requested weapons.

“Sergeant Major, why the fuck is Cooper in my armor?” the GYSGT screamed as he got out of her line of sight.

It didn’t matter if they were in the middle of enemy territory without a concrete evac plan. An HI trooper didn’t like someone else fucking with their armor.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 262

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

<This little piggy went to the market. This little piggy should have stayed home, and this little piggy makes things go boom. Blue is cool, red is dead.> Coop thought to himself as he connected the last of the ignition devices to the composite explosives.

A string of them was wrapped around the back side of a large, metal tube. Inside the tube were the energy relays of a main power conduit to one of the large surface-to-space cannons designed to protect the capitol.

Harper’s Center was not a well-defended city, which worked for the Commonwealth this time around. They had a handful of surface-to-space cannons to help keep assault carriers from dropping troops right on their doorstep, but most were still out of commission from the last battle, and Coop was trying to take out the rest.

The city also had two PDCs on the outskirts of town. Both were still badly damaged from the fighting, and the SGM was going to make sure the weak shielding that was available didn’t come back online when the Windsor’s needed it the most. Still, the Commonwealth would likely leave them alone if the civilians evacuated there. After all, they were still Commonwealth citizens in the government’s eyes.

The SRRT and rebellion had a firm grasp of what countermeasures were available to Harper’s Junction before the Windsor’s invaded. That wasn’t what they were worried about. It was what the Windsor’s had put in place since then that made them nervous.

“We’re good here,” Coop announced as he awkwardly twisted himself out of space between the pipes. Two rebel soldiers stood guard with barely concealed submachine guns. They would give the local cops pause, but if legit soldiers showed up they wouldn’t even tickle their armor.

“What’s next?” The bigger of the two rebels asked. His name was Stavos, and if he strung more than five words together that was a big deal.

Coop pulled out a paper list. Not something on his HUD or IOR, not even a polyplast slip. A legit piece of paper. I was one of the few times in his life he’d even held the rarely used substance.

When he asked the SGM why the list was on written on paper, the NCOIC replied, “So if you get caught you can eat it.”

Coop had licked the paper. It tasted plain enough, and as a Rat, he’d eaten worse.

“We’ve got to go two sectors over and disable a junction box. We’ll need to make sure we leave enough room for it to complete normal operations, but when invasion protocols kick in it’ll short circuit and kill power to two sections of town.”

Sabotaging that junction box was as much about getting the civilians out as making sure the Windsor’s had to spend time and resources fixing the problem, which would lead them right into the ambushes the rebels were setting. The SGM had really organized an insurgency’s wet dream.

The sector the junction box would blackout also belonged to the sector surrounding the palace. Having the local security force’s response time off by even a few minutes was going to be worth its weight in diamonds when it came to getting the rest of the team back. Insiders loyal to the rebellion had already reported the captured members’ location. They were all there: Eve, Mike, the LT, SSG Hightower, and even the injured Gunney; although the latter was in the infirmary on a separate level. That was going to make getting her more difficult, but the SGM had a plan.

Coop just hoped it worked.

 

Eve Berg

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

Everything was dark, calm, and quiet in the corner of Eve’s mind. She’d centered herself and retreated there as the Windsor’s tortured her. It was a trick taught to her in Ranger School during SERE training. Not everyone was able to do this. Some people’s minds were just too hectic, but those who could pull it off had an ace up their sleeve that was sure to be a thorn in the side of their jailers.

She pictured something, for her it was a small flame, and everything became that. She focused on the flame and became one with it. As stupid and backwards as the whole concept sounded, it worked, and she was able to ride out the worst of what her interrogators inflicted on her.

The worst thing about torture, what they’d failed to really simulate in school, was how long it could go on. By now, she was sure every inch of her had been cut and sliced. Her shoulder had been dislocated, bones broken, she’d been sapped with energy weapons, and just shot out of frustration at least once. As she pulled herself out of her protected corner of consciousness she got a look at herself in the full-body mirror the torturers had placed in front of her. It was supposed to inflict psychological trauma for someone to see themselves so mutilated, but as she focused in front of her, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. That was another setback of modern torture. People just didn’t die after all the pain inflicted. They were healed right up so the sick bastards could go to work on them again.

“You’re awake, good.” The female sergeant who always talked with her was seated just to the right of the mirror.

Eve was still naked as the day she was born and restrained, so it came as a surprise when the restrained snapped open and she fell to the ground.

<Now would be the perfect time to kick some ass,> she laughed to herself, but this wasn’t a holo. She couldn’t just bounce back from being tortured for what felt like months and take on the trio of big royal marines that were covering her.

She felt incredibly weak. So weak that her legs trembled when she struggled to her feet. The Windsor’s had basically starved her, and only given her enough to keep her alive. All her physical enhancements were useless unless she had enough calories to keep her fighting. If anything, they were a bigger hindrance now.

She stood there, naked, in front of the men and woman trying to think of something to do, or at least something interesting to say, but the woman beat her to that. She tossed a pair of clothes at her.

“Get dressed and follow me.” The woman walked to the door without looking back.

The clothes were plain and thin. They were enough to cover her modesty, but not enough to be used against anyone or hide anything. Eve slowly dressed in them as she watched her watchers. They were in standard armor, so they were frontline troops, not mechs, but that didn’t really matter. They’d fuck her up if things went sideways, so she did what she was told.

“Five meters,” the team leader ordered her as they left the torture dungeon that had been her home for god only knew how long.

Eve knew they were overreacting. A stiff fart from one of them would throw her off balance, but she kept her spacing from the woman. She followed down a corridor. There were other rooms, but no guards on them. She counted the rooms and the number of steps it took her to the turn. She didn’t know if she’d have to do this in the dark or without eyes when she tried to escape. They made a right turn and at the end of hall was a larger reinforced door, she guessed a lift, but they didn’t go to it. They took the second door on the left that led into a more spacious room.

There were other people in the room.

“Gun…”Eve began, but a glare cut her off.

The GYSGT’s face was severely bruised, obscuring her beauty behind a mess of black and blue. LT Wentworth, Mike, and SSG Hightower were also there looking exhausted but otherwise unharmed.

“So you’re a gunnery sergeant,” the Windsor sergeant sat down at a table on one side of the room. “The way she talked to you, I’d either put you at a private or lieutenant. You’re young either way and not in charge,” she studied the LT. “You, on the other hand are more seasoned. Some type of sergeant,” she pointed at Hightower. “Same with you, but not up to his standards,” she quickly dismissed Mike. “Lastly, you,” her eyes fixed on Eve. “You’ve got too much spunk to be anything but a corporal or sergeant. Prolonged service weights you down more, and you learn some tough facts about life and the galaxy. The Gunnery Sergeant understands this.” She completed her eerily accurate deduction. “Don’t worry. We’ll eventually identify you, parade you out in the streets as an example of your oligarchy’s attempts to defy the will of this planet’s people, and then you’ll be turned over to them for proper justice.” The woman didn’t gloat. It was just a statement of fact.

“All I want from you is information. How many more are with you? When is your Commonwealth going to counterattack? Give me this and I’ll tell the local authorities to take it easy on you,” she pointed at everyone but Eve. “You however. You destroyed a lot of public property and killed a few civilians. I doubt they’re going to let you off easy, so feel free to stay silent. If your compatriots help, maybe I can keep you alive.” A small smile tugged at the woman’s lip.

Eve hacked up what little saliva she had and spit on the table in between them. “Fuck you.”

As if on cue, a frenzied chirp emanated from the other woman’s body. She pulled out a PAD of some sort and opened a message where none of them could see. Eve might have not been able to see it, but she saw the slight tightening of the skin around the woman’s eyes. Something was up, and she just couldn’t resist.

“Something wrong?” she asked sweetly.

The woman didn’t answer. She got up and left the room. Her intentions were clear. She’d brought all the captured SRRT members into the same room to try and glean intel from them. She had done that, but the tables had been turned. She’d let them see something was wrong. That gave everyone a little bit of comfort.

 

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

He’d pushed the task force hard, but it was worth it. Aggie smoothly transitioned into normal space with only a slight tremble. Other ships wouldn’t be as lucky with their greener crews and fresh off a refit, but a couple of people loosing their lunches was a small price to pay for their timely arrival.

“Status?” he ordered and the holo-tank started to update.

Harper’s Junction wasn’t anything special. It was out of the way, and wasn’t much of a junction to anything, but the Windsor’s took it, so he was here to take it back.

“Alpha, Charlie, and Delta formations are reporting minimal dispersion, but Bravo…” the ADM didn’t need the tactical officer to continue further.

Bravo’s carrier group was scattered over several million kilometers. If they’d transitioned back to normal space closer to the planet, the Windsor’s would have been able to pick off the Commonwealth ships with ease. Fortunately, the battle plan called for them to arrive far from the target. They wanted the Windsor’s to commit to a course of action with time to react.

“Looks like we’ll be settling for Plan Three.” He sat back in his chair and watched the rest of the carrier groups get their acts together.

The task force was thrown together so fast and sent into action that there wasn’t time to develop clever names like most units did over time. They were simply Carrier Groups A, B, C, D, and the same was true with the battle plans. Plan One was if everyone transitioned well and were able to approach the target from their designated vectors. Plan Two was Alpha jacking up their transition, while Plan Three was Bravo Group screwing up and everyone else adapting. It meant the three carrier groups would approach the planet, while Bravo acted more as a reserve. It would allow the Windsor’s to concentrate more power on the three carrier groups, but it would also allow Ward to reinforce or break through somewhere if need be. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the reality he had to work with.

“Enemy forces should be learning of our transition in three…two…one…” the coms officer counted down.

As the light speed sensors updated, the holo-tank the ships in orbit around the planet began to move. The information was several minutes out of date, but the lag would lessen as they continued their approach.

“Let’s get to it people. We’ve got a planet to win back. Drone scouts out. Let’s make sure they don’t have any surprises waiting,” he sat back and ordered.

Now came the calm before the storm.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 259

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

“That was a shit sandwich with a side of ass fries,” Coop grumbled as he pulled himself up the last few ladder rungs and into the dilapidated factory.

After dispatching his two uninvited guests, Coop’s getaway had been uneventful. He made it to the rebel bar and descended down into the subterranean maintenance tunnels that were the circulatory system of any modern city. The rebellion’s main component were the working class folks who worked these tunnels, so the areas were clear as Coop passed through them and walked the few kilometers back to the factory district.

“We heard,” the SGM replied from a table not far from the access hatch. “It’s been all over the police frequencies.”

“Any idea who they were?” The GYSGT deposited a crate of components down in front of their boss.

Coop, like all the other straight men in the room, couldn’t help but stare. The GYSGT had stripped down into basically a sports bra and workout shirt that had enough holes in it, it didn’t count for much. Unlike all the rebel soldiers drooling and tripping over themselves, Coop knew he didn’t stand a chance. Plus, he was taken.

“I didn’t stop to ask,” he snapped back. His nerves were still a little raw and his pride was wounded from being spotted. The rest of the SRRT team had taken a crack at surveilling the palace, but only he’d been caught.

“Next time do a quick pat down and look at their credentials,” the SGM advised without looking up from the box of goodies the GYSGT had brought him. “It’ll help to know if that was a Windsor intelligence asset or just a local detective you iced.”

Coop nodded because he knew he should have done that in the first place, but with the chef standing there looking like he was ready to bolt, Coop made the executive decision to get the hell out of dodge. “Roger that,” he replied as he walked up to the table. “What do we have here?”

“Don’t touch,” there was a warning in the SGM’s tone that Coop knew better than to disobey.

“That insurgency class is finally come in handy,” the GYSGT joked as she brought over a chair and spun it around to sit in it backwards.

“This isn’t the first time,” the SGM left it at that, which meant the rest was probably classified.

Coop just stared dumbly at the two of them until the GYSGT brought him up to speed. “About twenty years ago the infantry panicked about planets getting lost to the Blockies. We were just starting to expand meaningfully into a few sectors and we were rubbing elbows with our esteemed neighbors to the East more often. The brass got a bunch of snake eaters together, like the Sergeant Major here, and had them study up on insurgency warfare. They then went around to the militias on these newly founded worlds and taught some select units these tricks,” she grinned. “Nothing major ever happened beyond some naval skirmishes, and we were ten years from rediscovering the Windsor’s, so they cut the whole program after a few years.”

“But look at me now,” the SGM cracked a rare smile as he completed some component and the electronics blinked to life.

“What is it?” Coop asked as he reached forward, only to have his hand slapped like a child by the GYSGT.

“It’s a detonator, Cooper,” she chided as the SGM put it into a completed box. Looking in the box, Coop saw about a dozen of the devices.

“See if you can get some more components?” the SGM requested.

“Shit,” the GYSGT exclaimed as she checked the time. “Let’s go, Cooper. We’ve got to move.”

She tossed off the ratty shirt, getting catcalls from around the room, and got into her CMUs. She threw a jacket over to conceal the Commonwealth Military Uniform before giving everyone the finger. Everyone laughed, and Coop could feel the positivity in the air. They were planning to hit the Windsor’s where it hurt, and that gave these people hope.

Coop knew better than to just rely on hope as he hopped into the passenger seat of a garbage truck. The meeting with some off-planet weapons smugglers, who’d unfortunately been trapped on Harper’s Junction by the invasion, was happening at a waste disposal center. Again…people tended to not look too closely at people’s random shit, so it was the perfect cover.

Getting to the location was more of a nail biter. Traffic was getting heavy as the sun started to set and the work day ended. On one hand they were using the mass of people as cover. Public outrage tended to keep checkpoints at a minimum during rush hour, but on the other hand, they were in a big, slow moving target that anyone could point out to the Windsor’s and then they’d be totally fucked. After his recent run in with the law, Coop wasn’t keen on being in public right now, so he sat quietly in the passenger seat and fiddled with his pistol.

The pea shooter was nothing compared to his Buss, much less a M3, but when going to meet with illegal contacts, there was a certain protocol. Number one on that was don’t show up with big guns the other guy can’t match. Someone is going to start something and then everything goes to shit, so a little pistol it was.

<At least it’s modern,> he had to be thankful it was an EM propelled model. Most of the rebel foot soldiers coming with them had old-school slug throwers, <But with our only defense being our quick wits, reflexes, and CMUs on their combat setting, one of those old slug throwers might get the job done anyway.>

For about the millionth time Coop missed having his LACS. He was willing to do just about anything to get back in one.

After nearly an hour of driving, and one heart pounding episode where they thought they were getting pulled over by the cops, they arrived at the plant. As promised, it smelled like shit mixed with fouler shit, and a side of rotten onion rings. That would have distracted Coop if not for the two men at the gate with barely concealed sub-machines guns.

The GYSGT had a word with them, flashed a smile, and they were through the gate and rumbling toward a warehouse that looked nearly identical to all the others in the factory district.

“Ok, Cooper,” she threw the truck in park and turned to him. “I’m not the Gunnery Sergeant here. We’re Gwen and Mark, just a couple of people out to buy some guns. Understood?”

“Yes, Gunn…I mean Gwen,” the words sounded blasphemous rolling off his tongue.

Apparently, Gwen agreed. “We’ll work on it.” She opened her door and hopped down.

Coop doubted the gun smugglers would be thrown by them not using their ranks. They were too big to be anything other than enhanced military personnel, but he’d learned that concealing anything you could from the enemy was a good thing. Even if it was just your rank.

The other resistance soldiers gathered around the two SRRT members and headed for the large, metal double door that was cracked open. They heard voices from inside. Some of the rebel troops went in first before Gwen and Coop squeezed through the opening.

“Ho-chi-mama,” a man at the center of a rag-tag group of individuals stated when he saw Gwen. “I’d like me some of that.”

Coop ground his teeth and clenched his fists at the comment, but a warning look from Gwen made him stand back. <She can handle these assholes.>

“Hello, boys,” the sweet voice that came out of her mouth was one Coop hadn’t heard since meeting her at Basic. “I hear you’ve got something long, hard, and capable of breaking a few hearts for me.”

The gun smugglers laughed as the innuendo, and just like that she had them relaxed.

<Damn.> Coop just stood back and watched the master work.

There was some haggling over the price, and a lot more haggling to get her to have a beer with them, but she fended them off with the skills of a beautiful women who’d been hit on by horny men for decades. Finally, an agreement was reached, and money exchanged hands. She waved her hand and Coop came forward to grab some of the crates. The rebels needed two guys per crate, while he could take on in each hand.

As he picked up his two, he couldn’t help but take a peek to see what they’d be using to storm the gates of the fortified palace. What he saw made his heart stop.

In his crate were dozens of AK-89s. The AK-89 was a Blockie weapon developed and deployed as their main assault rifle in 2089. They’d manufactured tens of millions of the model and had used it in combat for nearly a century and a half. Unfortunately, 150 years still meant they’d moved away from it in the 2230s, a solid two hundred years ago.

The AK models were known for their resiliency and dependability, and there were so many floating around in human space that everyone knew how to use one thanks to all the action they’d seen in real life and in holos. Thankfully, they were an EM powered model, but they were the first mass produced model after that tech really got rolling, so its performance numbers were nowhere near the current M3s model. It made up for it by firing a 2.5mm round, a lot bigger than the M3, and it looked like the smugglers were giving them plenty of ammo. It had a hundred round magazine, which was going to be needed. They’d need a ton of rounds to take down a regular Windsor grunt in their armor. Coop wasn’t even sure they’d be able to breach the enemy’s shields, and he knew there was no way in hell they were going to take down a mech if a V4 LACS couldn’t handle the task.

<We’re going to be walking into a meat grinder,> he tried not to let his despair show, but one of the smugglers caught on.

“Hey, kid, these are dependable guns right here. They’ll get you out of a bind and make whoever is fucking with you think twice about trying again.” The smuggler clearly wasn’t clueing into the fact that Coop and Gwen were military and they could only have one real target on this planet.

“Sure,” Coop shrugged as he grabbed his two crates and headed back toward the truck.

As he reached the double doors his IOR pinged him. Since it was in standby mode, it was a surprise and he nearly dropped his crates. When he checked the message he did drop his crates.

{Incoming.} The text looked so innocuous he would have assumed it was a joke if not for the setting he was in.

“In…!” he didn’t get the word out before the world exploded with light and sound.

He stumbled backward and tripped over the crate. He banged his head against the metal door, which didn’t help his already discombobulated senses. The only good part was that it gave him a reference point of where the weapons were.

As his eyes continued to adjust, his hands reached out and grabbed one of the AK-89s. The hundred round clip was harder to find and harder to insert, but as he fumbled with it he got in a prone firing position while using the crates as cover. When the blur started to dissolve into more concrete shapes an icy fist gripped his stomach.

A dozen men in black tactical gear were spreading out through the opposite side of the building. There was also a big hole in the ceiling where the large-area flash-bang came crashing in from. The men had on obsolete helmets by modern Commonwealth military standards, but it was still allowing them to coordinate and would increase their fire’s lethality. Plus, most of the smugglers and rebels were still rolling around and trying to get their bearings. Only him and Gwen seeming to have regained function.

{Lay down cover fire and I’ll move to you,} her voice popped into his head. They weren’t supposed to use the IOR, but they were up shits creek.

{Roger,} he targeted one of the lead men with the AK-89s old iron sights and pulled the trigger.

The weapons had some kick to it, but not enough to overwhelm his enhanced strength. He kept the barrel on target and three rounds hit the enemy in the chest. He went down, but Coop saw him crawl behind cover.

{Aim for extremities,} he relayed to Gwen as she popped up from her own cover and engaged another enemy.

It looked like the Windsor’s had moderately upgraded the capitol’s SWAT team. That was why the 89’s heavy round didn’t blow open that cop’s chest, but their arms and legs were a different story. Gwen’s rounds hit their target, and he went down in a spray of gore.

{Moving!}

Coop popped up and sprayed the area. He depleted the magazine in seconds, but it stopped the SWAT teams advance and allowed the GYSGT to make it a dozen meters closer to safety. She took cover behind a shelving rack.

{At your three o’clock,} Coop warned as the cops advanced farther into the warehouse and attempted to flank her position. He lost sight of her as she moved down the row, but the 89s powerful retort rang out seconds later.

That was all the time he could spend looking because the SWAT team had zeroed in on his position. Rounds started to chew up the ground and crates around him. He reached in a grabbed a handful of magazines before retreating back.

“Shit!” fragments of the faux wood kicked up by the incoming rounds dug into his hand. He popped up to spray the area again before bounding for the door.

Any of his instructor, including the GYSGT, would have chewed his ass out for firing blindly without acquiring a target. However, he didn’t think they’d expect him to be on an enemy held planet, without armor, HUD, or any modern targeting suites, and using a three-hundred-year-old Blockie assault rifle.

He expected rounds to tear through him as he squeezed through the door, but none came. He silently thanked the gods of war watching over him before using the door as cover to rain down fire on the enemy. He lost track of time as he burned through his ammo, but thankfully the smugglers and rebels were starting to get into the fight now.

Someone somewhere had grenades because stuff started to randomly explode on the far side of the warehouse.

{Gwen, where are you?} He scanned for any sign of the GYSGT. {Gwen!} He thought she was down and he was going to have to go back in to haul her ass out, when she appeared on the far right of the warehouse.

She was ducking behind a container as rounds tore into whatever garbage they were storing there. Coop aimed diagonally across the space, where he thought her attacker might be, and unloaded twenty rounds. She saw the opening he’d created and took it.

For a second, he thought she was home free, but then a puff of red erupted from her thigh, quickly followed by a second from her lower abdomen. Her face screwed up in pain and she faltered and fell.

{Gunney!} He desperately wished he had a grenade or something bigger to give him cover. He tried to squeeze back through the door, but rounds dinged into the metal and he took a ricochet in the forearm.

“DAMN!” he shook out the pain and droplets of blood flew everywhere.

She was down, but she wasn’t out. She was pouring fire back in the direction she’d been shot from and she must have hit something because that fire ceased.

{Get the truck ready,} her orders were clear over the IOR.

He looked over his shoulder and saw the rebel soldiers not caught inside standing like a bunch of frightened school children hanging around the big truck.

{They don’t seem to have a perimeter up, so we need to get the hell out of here before they tighten the noose,} she continued. {Fire up the truck and I’ll meet you there.}

{Yes, Gunney,} Coop’s training kicked in and he followed his orders.

“Stow that shit and keep an eye out!” He yelled at the rebels mulling around.

They’d gotten all but the two crates of 89’s that he’d been carrying, which was better than nothing, but a billion of those crates didn’t equate to one GYSGT Cunningham.

<We can still get out of this,> Coop hoped as he executed his orders. All they needed was the GYSGT.

That small glimmer of hope immediately extinguished as something glinted overhead. “Incoming!” Coop did the smart thing and put as much distance between himself and the truck as possible.

A missile streaked from above and straight into the cab of the vehicle. It went up in a ball of crackling flame. Even worse was when the originator of that missile crashed through the roof of the warehouse. Coop would never forget the look of a Windsor mech, and even though this was a slightly different design there was no mistaking its destructive potential.

{Run!} The GYSGT’s command came through before the mech’s five meter figure disappeared into the warehouse.

{But…}

{Get the fuck out of here, Cooper. That’s an order!} He knew there was no way she could possibly enforce that order. Her ass was grass, but her sheer willpower had Coop’s feet moving before he knew what was happening.

The truck was a smoldering wreck, all the weapons were gone, the GYSGT was about to be KIA, and their emergency egress plan involved wading through a manmade river of literal shit to get to the access tunnels that would take him out of there and to safety.

<Fuck!> There was no better word to describe the total disaster this mission was becoming.

He sprinted for the shit river and safety.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 256

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

“Let’s go people, let’s go!”

A shiver went down Coop’s spine as memories of Basic reared their ugly head from the depths of his subconscious. GYSGT Cunningham was marching around the resistance HQ like she’d marched around their barracks. Only this time she was wearing a LACS, and he could swear the barrel of her Buss was still smoking.

The multi-strike raids had been a success….mostly. One team had been caught out in the open by orbital bombardment, but there was no use worrying about them. One moment they’d been alive, and the next they’d been scattered across a dozen kilometers. They hadn’t felt anything as the kinetic force of the railgun round ripping through the atmosphere pulverized them.

<Actually, the last thing they heard probably sounded like God was ripping a big one up there,> Coop chuckled as he imagined the racket the round cutting through the atmosphere sounded like.

“What’s so funny, Cooper? You want to end up as a smear stain on some Windsor mech’s boot, because that’s what is going to happen if you don’t move your ass!” The GYSGT descended on his momentarily good humor like a plague.

Like in Basic, it was unwise to respond. Instead, he just put his head down and kept picking things up and putting them down. As the strongest human outside a LACS – even injured – the bulk of the loading fell to him.

A steady stream of trucks was pulling into this section of the tunnel system that had this former mining command center. Into those trucks the rebels, with the SRRT team significant assistance, were piling all of their crap. They all needed to get the hell out of dodge.

The smoke had barely cleared from the orbital strike and the Windsor’s and their loyalist lackeys were on the move. While the hardcopy and electronic data in the planet’s achieves was gone, there were still people out there who knew their way around the mines. Some were helping because they liked the new management, and others were doing it out of fear. Coop didn’t really care which one was their motivator. They were all traitors.

Kill teams of Windsor troops were spreading out through the intricate network of tunnels that infested the bedrock of the entire continent. Running into them at this point was like finding a needle in a haystack, but teams on other missions had found that needle, and it had fucked them up. Now, everyone was scurrying to reposition and blowing shit up to stop the enemy’s progress.

“There is an old forge here,” Masha was pointing to a spot on a hardcopy map that Coop couldn’t see.

It irked him to no end that Masha was a high up in this rebellion. The guy was literally a student…an art student. The first time he’d fired a weapon in anger had been the ambush, and Coop knew for a fact he hadn’t hit shit. On top of that, he’d nearly gotten shot. Coop had found him on the withdrawal shaking in the back of the vehicle he’d stolen, but now Masha was giving relocation orders like he knew what he was doing.

<I just hate him.> Coop concluded, and continued hauling stuff into the waiting truck.

“Did I say you could take a water break!” The GYSGT barked as she listed an entire computer server and walked it across the base to carefully put it in the back of the Coop’s stolen vehicle.

It irked him that his ill-gotten gains had immediately been seized in the name of the resistance. Now, a man in a flimsy-reinforced, clothe vest was manning the weapon on top, and like an idiot, had it pointed in the wrong direction. The idiot was watching them pack, not the tunnel that was the only avenue of approach into the HQ.

“Do you want to stop pointing the shit and me and all your buddies. One nervous twitch and you’re going to blow everyone away.” Coop plopped the served he was carrying next to the GYSGT’s.

“It’s on safe,” the guy shrugged.

Coop closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, clutched his fists and counted to ten so he didn’t pull the guy out of the turret and knock his teeth out.

“Cooper, stop just standing there!” The GYSGT was back, but Coop didn’t care.

He held up one finger in the universal “wait a minute” gesture, which was a lot better than the one-finger gesture he felt like giving everyone. Surprisingly the GYSGT didn’t bite his head off. He felt a cold, metal hand on his shoulder.

“Take five out there,” she pointed back into the depths of the HQ.

“Thanks,” he muttered as he continued those deep, soothing breaths.

He marched into an empty corridor and rubbed his eyes as sudden exhaustion spread over him. The only time he’d gotten any shuteye since landing on this planet was being passed out from injury or in surgery. Those didn’t exactly lend themselves to a good night’s sleep, so he was starting to feel it. Plus, he’d fought – more than fought – he’d single handedly dominated his battle only to come back to HQ to have to rush to retreat. Then, he was surrounded by such incompetence he’d rather grab a bunch of FNGs fresh from Basic. It was all so…

“Frustrated?” The SGM walked through the door in his LACS. His head barely avoided brushing the ceiling.

“Among other things,” Coop answered honestly.

On top of the sleep deprivation, and being forced to work with starving artists turned wannabe soldiers, he had been too busy until now to think about Eve. Killing some Windsor’s had been cathartic, but now he couldn’t help but imagine what they were doing to her.

“Don’t worry, we’ll make it right.” Coop wasn’t sure if the SGM was talking about the lack of basic warfighting skill in the rebels, or their missing team members, but either way it helped to know the NCOIC was thinking the same as he was.

Coop opened his mouth to respond but a boom rumbled nearby and the whole facility shook. At that moment, he didn’t need to be reminded to get back to work. He shot to his feet and sprinted back into the makeshift loading dock.

“What the fuck are you standing around for? Remove your thumbs from your assholes and move, people! We’ve got less time than we thought!” Coop roared and the rabble of men and women were shocked back into action.

The SGM walked back over to the GYSGT who was standing in the middle of the madness.

{Cooper,} their voices appeared in his mind as they activated their IORs. {We can’t stick around with these guys any longer. They’re going to be on the run for weeks trying to avoid the Windsor’s. Chances are that they are going to be caught and killed. Masha doesn’t know this, but we’ve convinced him to take us into the city to get our people back while the rest of his people run.} It was the best news Coop had heard all day. {Once we get our people, we’ll make contact with the rebellion and complete our mission with them if we need to, but I don’t need more info for my report back to the brass.}

Coop would bet half a months pay that the report said the populace was willing to fight for their independence, but their tactical prowess or strategic importance was minimal at best. Like with the Windsor loyalists, their best use was going to be diving down into these holes and leading Commonwealth troops on a subterranean hunt for any remaining Windsor’s.

{Get your kit and meet at Masha’s vehicle.} The SGM broke off and left Coop to gather him ramshackle, oversized, jerry-rigged Dragonscale armor.

<We’re coming for you Eve…and you too Mike.> He thought as he jumped into the back of the truck.

Everyone but the SGM joined him in the back, but they remained silent behind their faceplates. Everyone had something on their mind, and if they were thinking the same thing as Coop, then they wanted to get their people back fast.

Coop hadn’t been through SERE school, but he knew the generalities of what his girlfriend was probably putting up with.

 

Eve Berg

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

<SERE did not prepare me for this,> even Eve’s mental thoughts were groans at this point.

She was naked and tied up in this Windsor hellhole. After she’d dislocated her shoulder trying to kick her interrogator, the bastards had stripped her naked and tied her up like she was the star in some kinky bondage film. Thankfully, it hadn’t gone farther than that, but there were plenty of other ways to torture her.

She had no idea how much time had passed, or how many times they cut her. Death by a thousand cuts seemed to be the recipe of the day for her current tormentor. The lithe man took a simple razor and sliced her flesh open at periodic intervals. The cuts varied in size and depth, but they all hurt, and each one of them drew more blood and strength from her enhanced body.

“Again,” the man stood in front of her with his silver instrument of pain dripping with her blood. “How many soldiers came with you? What is your mission? How did you get here?”

This time Eve opened her mouth, which she’d stubbornly kept closed up until this point. The man visibly perked up.

“Didn’t they teach you anything in Interrogation 101? One question at a time.” Her lips broke into a vicious grin as she hacked a loogie right onto his face.

The man closed his eyes and sighed deeply, like he was dealing with an unruly child. He wiped the spit off and flung it onto the floor just before he slashed out with the razor.

<He’s fast when he wants to be,> she noted before stinging pain lanced through her forehead.

Blood quickly trickled through her eyebrow and into her eye. She grimaced as more stinging enveloped her face, and she tried to shake away the blood. That only succeeded in terrible agony emanating from her shoulders.

“Sometimes it’s the little things,” her tormentor smiled once she stopped screaming. “A little blood in the eye from a little nick on the head. It’s just so troublesome.” He brought his face very close to hers.

Normally, she would have broken the fucker’s nose, but she couldn’t bear to move her body a centimeter.

“That’s a good girl. Give in to the pain.” He gently pressed his lips to her forehead.

It felt like much more of an invasion than it should have considering what they could do to her in her current state, but she instinctually reacted. She lashed out, but he was already dancing away. Pain wracked her whole body until finally darkness took her.

“We’ll start this up again later, my precious.” Her tormentor placed the razor on his table of deadly instruments and took a seat to watched her hang their unconsciously.

A moment later the door opened.

“Your Majesty,” the torturer bowed deeply as Josephina stepped into the room.

She gave Eve a good once over and nodded to the torturer. “How close?” was her only question.

“Closer every minute,” the man smiled. He had a system, and it was known for its effectiveness.

“Good. Get me when you have something actionable. We’re going to crush this rebellion now, and make sure everyone knows what happens when you bite the benevolent hand that rules you.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he bowed low again as the Queen left, before turning his watchful eyes back on Eve.

He settled in to wait.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 251

Benjamin Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<If that’ll even do it?> He wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sergeant Cooper. Who the hell are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 250

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Coop thought he knew the meaning of the word pain. His life hadn’t been easy up to this point, and he felt he had a solid grasp of the concept. As he opened his eyes in that dark, dry cave in the mountains, he knew he didn’t know what pain was.

Everything hurt…everything. Even his balls had an uncomfortable ache to them that had nothing to do with dreaming about Eve. He grunted and tried to sit up, but the world revolved like someone spun his head like a dreidel, and his stomach leapt into his throat. He would have puked all over his HUD if he had anything in his stomach. Instead, he dry heaved for a solid thirty seconds before a little bit of stomach acid dripped out of his mouth and onto the smartcloth at his neck.

The combat drug kits the LACS released to keep him in the fight were a marvel of medical science. You could be on the verge of death, but it would keep you fighting for an hour, and with a raging hard-on at that. All the adrenaline pumping through your system made you act a little crazy, but that was nothing compared to when it all wore off. Coop checked his IOR and saw he’d been out for nearly sixteen hours.

A VR crash was bad. Going from fighting for your life one second to sitting in a black box the next was jarring to the senses, but you learned to manage it. There was no way to manage the hangover from a combat drug kit, and that was exactly what this was. His body was rebelling against the potent concoction that had ultimately saved his life against the ambushing Windsor Company, but it came with a price.

“Ugh,” was the only sound he could make as he tried for a second to get into a seated position. Again, his head spun, but the stabbing pain in his side kept him from executing the simple maneuver.

His armor squawked a medical warning to him, and he felt the cool spray of nanites in the area of the pain. The V4 had a better integrated medical system in it than his old V2. He’d lost a leg in that one and survived, so this suit would definitely keep him alive.

He pinged the medical alerts he was getting and grimaced. A few broken limbs, first degree burns on his side where his armor had been breached, and one of his lungs looked like it had been fried a bit, which explained why it was difficult to breath.

<Better than dead,> he reminded himself as he fought to sit up, and barely managed it.

He was alive, but combat ineffective, so of course that’s when he suit picked up nearby movement. The cave he in wasn’t very large. It was less than fifty meters from the opening to the back wall, and he’d curled up to lick his wounds off to the side of the entrance. A rock jutting out of the wall gave him good cover and concealment, so he used that as he picked up his buss and…his hands groped the ground around him but felt nothing.

 <I lost my weapon,> Coop couldn’t believe it. <Fuck!> His odds of surviving another encounter with a Windsor patrol went from slim to shit.

He still had his pistol in his leg holster, so he pulled the puny peashooter out and made sure one of his nano-blades was easily accessible. <At least I’ll be able to gut one of these assholes before they take me down.> He promised himself he’d make the fuckers work.

The crunch of rock under something heavy was his first sign that company was close. He readied himself and begged the LACS for more drugs to help him get to his feet. The system beeped back a refusal. He didn’t have a chance to ask why.

A hulking metal figure stepped into view while its weapon swept the cavern. Coop aimed for the head and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. The pistol just beeped defiantly at him, just like his armor had.

<You’ve got to be…> he paused as the drug-infused thoughts finally got organized. Then he sighed with relief and lowered his weapon.

All the Commonwealth weapons had friend-and-foe designators tied to STRATNET and whatever new interface the IORs were using. Coop couldn’t fire on the man in armor because they were a friendly, and since the rebels on this planet probably hardly had a pot to piss in, much less a V4 LACS…

{Howdy,} he sent a short-range broadcast to the other LACS. {Welcome to my humble abode.}

{Damnit, it’s you, Cooper,} GYSGT Cunningham’s voice spoke into his mind.

{Nice to see you too, Gunney,} he matched her sarcasm with some of his own.

{Give me a SITREP.} She wasn’t in the mood to banter, so he quickly download the shitshow the last twenty-four hours of his life had been.

{Shit,} she must have finally got to his medical status because she slung her weapon and rushed over to him.

{I feel about as bad as I look,} he wagered a guess he didn’t look so hot.

{You look worse than usual,} a video stream from the GYSGT’s IOR popped onto his HUD. It showed Coop’s side, and he had to try really hard not to vomit up more bile.

His armor was a mess of blackened, warped metal, and underneath it, charred shin and bone. He actually saw when his V4’s medical system kicked in and a puff of spray exited the armor and onto his wounds. It acted as antibiotics and topical anesthetic to keep the pain down, but to really get fixed up, he’d need proper medical attention.

{What did you do, fight off the entire Windsor occupation force?} She asked, as she evaluated his wound and how it impacted her plan.

{Nah, just a Company,} he shrugged, which elicited a wince. {I’m also pretty sure they nabbed Mike earlier.}

The GYSGT just nodded and made a waving motion over her shoulder. A squad of regular grunts swept into the cavern. Judging by their ragtag looks, Cooper guessed they were the rebel forces the SRRT was supposed to link up with. The GYSGT exchanged some words with them and a few ran back out while the others stood guard. After watching them for a second, Coop didn’t have high hopes for their already fucked mission.

Coop saw a bunch of untrained farmers. A few actually had modern weapons. He noticed some submachine guns the team had strapped to their armor with the intention of bestowing upon the rebels, but the modern, compact weapons didn’t make them intimidating. He was sure he’d still be able to waste all of them without getting to his feet. They basically had no armor. A few wore what might be centuries-old flak jackets, and they all seemed to be wearing headgear that was somewhere between a baseball cap and a helmet, but wouldn’t stop a well-thrown rock from doing serious damage. Most of the squad was equipped with the shotgun he’d seen on the farmer’s daughter when he first arrived.

<We’re screwed?> he thought, but didn’t voice that aloud to the people helping him.

{We’re going to move you by vehicle back to headquarters,} the GYSGT explained. {Once they’re we’ll patch you up and figure out our next move.}

Coop knew the only logical move was to send a tight-beam to Argo telling them everything was FUBAR and get orders from someone higher up the chain. He didn’t want to stay on this planet any longer than he had to.

<But Mike.> his conscious reared its ugly head, and he sighed with frustration. Thankfully, the GYSGT didn’t see any of his inner turmoil.

Since none of the locals could even pick up one of his limbs, it all fell to the GYSGT. She handled it easily enough with her LACS.

{You gonna carry me across the threshold, Gunney? I have to warn you I’m in no shape to put out right now.} He laughed at his own joke, which turned into a cough.

The GYSGT just shook her head and didn’t dignify him with a response. She emerged from the cave to see a big truck full of raw ore. It was pretty good cover for moving around in this area, and it was even better when the locals moved aside a few big chunks to show that an open space was concealed at the center. Not only did that hide them from aerial view or casual observers, but the magnetics of the ore would probably throw off the Windsor’s ability to detect IOR transmissions at short range.

The GYSGT unceremoniously dropped Coop’s ass on the metal flatbed, and pushed him into the hidey-hole. She followed behind him along with the two rebels with the submachine guns. The rest of the squad hopped into the cabin at the front of the rig and drove off.

“Want to tell me what the hell happened?” Coop asked over his external speakers. He quickly briefed the GYSGT on the Windsor’s abilities to track nearby IORs.

“That fits,” she admitted, as she switched to audio. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened, but I’m guessing some kind of scrambler device.”

The suggesting made Coop shudder. He didn’t like being chopped up at the molecular level in the first place. That someone can scramble him after that was unnerving.

“We do the same thing to stop transmissions and communications in sensitive areas, so it only makes sense that the Hegemony has got some tech to stop people from Splitstreaming right into top secret facilities. The Windsor’s seem to have it while we don’t.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Coop grumbled.

The GYSGT ignored his bitching and continued. “I’m the only one that appeared at the LZ. The only other person I heard from was Sullivan, and he’s waiting for us back at HQ. Everyone else was out of range, but I’ve been doing patrols and trying to extend my range to pick up other signals. I was on my way to check on Mike’s signal when all hell seemed to break loose. I was able to ambush a small Windsor contingent from the battle and interrogate them. After that, it was a matter of checking all these little caves for you. Thankfully, the locals have a better lay of the land than the enemy.”

“Well thanks for finding my ragged ass.” Coop meant it. If she hadn’t found him, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t have been able to leave the cave. “So, what’s the plan?”

“Same plan, different day. We still need to scout this place and gather intel before the fleet arrives to take the planet back.” She kept her voice low. She clearly didn’t fully trust the locals either. “It’ll just be harder now that the enemy knows we’re here and already has at least one prisoner. Now we need to figure out how to get our people back and fuck up their day at the same time.”

Coop was onboard, but he doubted he’d be able to do a lot in the short term. He just hoped the local docs were up to the task of stitching him back together so he didn’t look like Frankenstein. It was always beach season somewhere and he had a hot girlfriend to impress.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 242

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thurgood Station, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“There she is,” Coop yawned at the holo-screen mounted to the bulkhead in grunt country.

They were still several thousand kilometers away, but Thurgood Station was an imposing sight. The station was owned by the Marshall Collective, a group of financers who’d played the long odds and hurried out to the Outer Rim before the rest of the corporations and governments started to expand.

It was a gamble that paid off. When the Diablo Sector was officially established, Thurgood Station sat in a resource-rich junction system at the center of it all. If the system had a habitable planet it would have been the sector capital, instead it had to settle for the economic hub of the region.

The station itself had been expanded from the first structure that was established over a century ago. Now, Thurgood Station held over thirty million permanent residents. Nearly double that were trading on the station at any given time, and the station’s owners had contracts with everyone from the Commonwealth government to Gold Technologies, and even down to independent ship owners. Corporations and entrepreneurs rented berths for their ships while the Commonwealth paid a discounted fee for the anchorage they had in a private part of the station.

When Coop and the rest of the SRRT had left for ET world there had been two battlecruisers and four destroyers docked at the anchorage to provide commerce protection and security for the station. Now, Coop saw an additional two battlecruisers, four battleships, and an assault carrier occupied the entirety of the anchorage’s berthing. Conversely, civilian commerce seemed to be lighter. Thurgood had hundreds of docks rented out to companies like Gold Technologies, but only about a third of them were full.

“Looks like they’re on a war footing,” Eve commented as she walked in and plopped down next to Coop. Coop was hyper-aware of her thigh against his, but he tried not to let her know.

<Play it cool, Coop. You’ve got her right where you want her.> Their trip to ET world had done wonders for his relationship with Eve. It was just like old times. Now, he only had to worry about Aiko slipping something poisonous into his chow.

“We’re docking in ninety-three minutes. The skipper and LT want us underway again in less than twenty-four hours.” The GYSGT announced as she entered the room behind Eve.

“Come on,” Coop grumbled louder than he intended.

“Do you have a problem with that, Sergeant?” Cunningham stressed Coop’s inferior rank.

“No, Gunney. It’s just that we’ve been on this tin can for nearly six weeks. It would be nice to stretch our legs and breathe some less-recycled air,” Coop replied.

“Our officers agree.” The GYSGT’s words surprised Coop. “And that’s why our turnaround time is twenty-four hours instead of six. Everyone will need to help offload the diplomats’ luggage, load on our new V4s, and the supplies for the duration of this mission. After that, you have a pass on Thurgood until our departure time. Does that meet with your expectations, Cooper?”

“Yes, Gunney. You’re running a five-star establishment here.”

Cunningham turned and walked out, but Coop was pretty sure he heard her mutter some choice four-letter words about him.

“So what do you say, Eve?” He turned to her and gave his best smile. “You want to grab a drink?”

“Only if you’re paying and we get a little shitfaced.” She winked back at him. “Too much time in a duro-steel tube isn’t healthy.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Coop smiled.

Ninety minutes later, he was playing baggage claim as they hustled to get the Minister and her team’s crap off the ship. The LCDR had wanted his own berth to speed along the resupply, but that was vetoed by the Rear Admiral in command of the small battlegroup assigned to the protection of Thurgood Station. The officers and SGM had briefings to attend, and the RADM wanted them on his ship for easy access. The arrangement also provided better security for the Minister. When Argo finally settled into her cradle in the carrier’s gunboat bay, the place was crawling with diplomatic security agents. The PM wanted the Minister safe and sound back on New Washington ASAP.

The woman stopped and talked to the LT and LCDR Gold for a few minutes, which ended with handshakes and salutes. Of course, the people who’d actually put their asses on the line to rescue her ill-fated diplomat were busy unloading luggage and trying to match it to its intended recipient. Thankfully, the diplomats were just glad to get out of Argo’s confines. The carrier was palatial by comparison, and they wanted to take advantage of that before they were put on a fast courier for the three-day trip back to New Washington.

Once the last bag was offloaded, Coop was ready for chow, so of course that was when the Gold Technologies people showed up with eight very-large crates. A small argument ensued between them and the SGM, before the NCOIC came over to the rest of the team.

“They need us to run a full diagnostic before they’ll sign the suits over to us, plus a short briefing. It’s going to take a few hours.” That got groans from everyone. Their free time was shrinking by the second.

“Let’s get on with it then. Over here wrench monkey, I’m first.” Everyone glared daggers in his direction, but Coop didn’t care.

{You snooze, you lose.} He let them all know it over the IOR.

As much as he wanted to get the hell out of here, Coop couldn’t rush the fitting process. This directly affected combat readiness and performance, and if he ever wanted to have another rumble between the sheets with Eve Berg, he’d have to be alive to do it. On the bright side, all of his favorites had been saved in his IOR, so when he booted up his LACS, it was like the other one hadn’t been destroyed, which begged the question, how had the other one been destroyed.

“A software glitch,” the Gold Technologies engineer explained when it came up during the briefing. “Integrating some of the new technologies with our existing designs required some inventive patches by our software team. Unfortunately, from what we could determine in your after action reports, the enemy combatants during your mission were able to scan the LACS, find the weakness, and exploit it.

{I’ll believe the Squids did this when Jasmine Cunningham shows up at my quarters and blows me, video tapes it, and makes me a star by putting it on the net.} Coop sent the message to everyone below the rank of SSG.

{Yeah, the universe will be so impressed by how small your dick is,} Aiko shot back immediately.

{Hahahah.} The laughter rang in Coop’s ears.

{She got you good,} Mike shrugged and gave Aiko a respectful nod.

“Lock it up!” GYSGT Cunningham snapped at them. For a second, Coop thought she’d heard him talking about her sister, but it turned out she could just tell they were having an off-the-books conversation when the engineer was talking.

{Coop does have a point.} Eve quasi came to his defense. {There is no way in hell the Squids were capable of detailed scanning of our shielded LACS. My money is that the Stormbreakers, or another Hegemony species, got it when we were pulling security, and forwarded the info to the Squids. The Minister did say the whole thing was some type of test. Hopefully, we passed it.}

{We turned them into fried calamari. I’m sure we passed.} Coop backed her up.

The engineer continued without any knowledge the grunts were having a side conversation. He explained the small upgrades to the new V4s they had: higher bandwidth for limited QE function in the command models, better battlefield AI assistance, which the SGM would be doing training on in route to their destination. Best of all from Coop’s perspective was the shield was now ingrained in the V4A’s instead of just fastened to the armor. The engineer concluded that the software glitch had been fixed, and all other patches triple-checked for the same issue.

“Any questions?” The engineer asked at the end.

“Can you take some customer feedback back to your bosses?” Coop inquired.

“Sure thing, Sergeant. We always value a feedback loop to make better products.” The engineer was using buzzwords that made Coop’s anger spike. It confirmed, in Coop’s opinion, that this was only a game to them measured in dollars.

“Can you please tell your software geeks that they can firmly shove their heads up each other’s asses. You fucktards nearly got us killed with your ‘overlooked’ glitch.” Coop added insult to injury by using air quotes. “Next time, don’t fuck it up.” He was seething by the end.

“That’s enough, Cooper.” The LT shot him a glare that said not to say one more word. Coop bit his lip, but stayed silent.

The engineer was red in the face, but his retort was waylaid by the SGM, who was out of his seat and steering the man away from the SRRT. That left the GYSGT to deal with the rest of the grunts. She stared Coop down until he looked away.

“We all know they screwed up, Cooper. The LT drafted a heated correspondence to Thomas Gold himself about the fuck up. Don’t rub salt in the wound. Those software geeks are going to be working on your LACS through your entire military career. It’s a good idea not to burn bridges. Understood?”

“Yes, Gunney,” Coop took a few deep breaths, but he was already feeling better now that he’d given the wrench turner a piece of his mind.

“Good.” The GYSGT’s eyes lost focus for a second, which told everyone she was consulting her IOR. “It’s 21:16 now. We docked at 12:15. Everyone will report back to Argo no later than 11:45 tomorrow morning.” Argo’s shipboard time synchronized with Thurgood when they arrived, which would give the crew wicked spacelag if they were staying here longer. “If you are late, you spar with me first thing after arriving on board. We clear?”

Coop might be bigger than the Gunney, but she was a cruel bitch when it came time to throw down. Her strength, experience, and speed made her a nightmare, and she was known to inflict injuries on her sparing partners. Unless ordered to, people usually stayed clear of that part of the gym when she was practicing.

“Yes, Gunney!” Everyone yelled back with enthusiasm for their impending freedom.

“Good. You are released until formation. Keep your IORs open for inbound traffic in case you are immediately recalled. The safety briefing is simple. Always have a battle buddy who is sober enough to take you back to the ship. Wrap it before you tap it, and don’t end up a guest of the MPs. We’re an SRRT, the best of the best, don’t act like an idiot. Dismissed.” She wasn’t halfway through the word before everyone was moving with a sense of urgency usually reserved for combat.

Coop really wanted to get out of his CMUs for once, and he had one pair of civvy smartcloth tucked into the bottom of his locker. He gave it a good spray of odor and grime cleansing nanites to make it more presentable. He also tapped into Thurgood’s net with his IOR. The station accepted his connection like it was a PAD and gave up the requested information. He made a reservation for two at a high-priced restaurant. After all, he had money to burn, and a girl was more likely to put out if you spent some money on her.

He gave the nanites a minute to work before changing and giving himself a once over. <I look good.> He thought to himself as he headed for the airlock to the station. Eve said she would meet him there.

He surfed the net for a minute while he waited for Eve. He nearly missed her when she appeared, because the woman who stepped into view was wearing an honest-to-god smartcloth dress. Coop had only ever seen Eve in CMUs and her birthday suit. For some reason, her dress was even more exciting.

Coop couldn’t help but give her a head to toe appraisal. She looked hot. The dress clung in all the right places while still being airy and carefree. He suspected it was something women wore in the summer, that was meant to catch the breeze and excite male imaginations. Coop knew he was seeing an all new Eve, and it made him slightly frightened what that meant.

“Shut your mouth, Cooper. You’re drooling all over the deck.” The voice and attitude was good-old Eve’s, but the expression on her face betrayed that she was glad his jaw dropped at her appearance. “What’s the matter? Have you never seen a dress?”

“Um,” Coop didn’t know how to respond, but the grin he got told him that not being able to respond was the correct reply.

“So are we going to go, or are you just going to eye fuck me until our pass is up?” Eve raised an eyebrow that spurred him into action.

“You look fantastic,” he finally got out the compliment as he extended his arm.

“You clean up decently yourself,” she replied as she took it and led the way to the airlock. “Let’s have some fun. Who knows how long it’ll be until we get time alone together.”

<What is happening?> Eve’s sudden attitude change was throwing him for a loop, and he knew he had to find out before the pass was over.

He wasn’t sure if he would like what he found. He’d never been a fan of change.

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