Two Worlds – Chapter 247

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Argo, United Commonwealth of Colonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 246

Benjamin Gold

Location: Argo, United Commonwealth of Colonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 239

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 237

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

Coop didn’t panic when the lights went out. Despite a few evaluation reports from tight-ass NCOs, he considered himself a good soldier, and he knew there were procedures in place to deal with situations like this. Step one was to reboot the system, followed by reestablishing communications, and a full weapon system diagnostic before getting back into the fight.

Coop tried to access the LACS through his IOR and then manually. Both were unresponsive. <Well the designers didn’t give us a procedure for this.>

Coop’s best guess was some type of EMP weapon to take the suits offline, but LACS were supposed to be shielded against that type of attack…or at least the human version. <The best military equipment the human race has to offer, and some of its best soldiers, and we get taken down in some Squid shithole without even firing a shot in anger. That’s gonna look great in the history books.> Coop fumed.

{Eve…Gunney…Sergeant Major…Lieutenant? Can anyone here me?} All he got was silence.

<Fuck it.> Coop tossed caution to the wind and began executing the shit-out-of-luck procedure.

If everything went to hell in Little Red Riding Hood’s handbasket, the designers had enabled an emergency molting feature in a LACS. This would allow a soldier, in an emergency situation, to shed the armor and continue the fight on foot. The realignment of armor plating and severing of internal circuitry required to execute the maneuver deadlined the LACS until a properly equipped armory could make repairs. Right now, the only armory Coop knew of that even knew the SRRTs and V4A’s and B’s existed was back on New Savannah. If Coop did this, he was going to be hoofing it for the rest of this tour.

<It’s not like I have much of a choice,> Coop thought as he began executing the complex set of maneuvers he hoped he’d never have to undergo in combat.

Coop understood the necessity to have super awkward maneuvers like this to not accidentally molt a HI trooper during combat, but now that he had to get out of the LACS in a hurry, he cursed the engineers for their foresight. He felt like a drunken ballerina as he contorted and twisted to reach manual release mechanisms built into the armor. He could barely reach some of them, and he was pretty sure he pulled a muscle or two in the process.

The armor began to loosen around him the farther he got in the process, which made things easier, but before he got to the last step he paused. <My buss was in my right hand and I had a pistol on my left hip.> He mentally went over where his offensive weapons were, followed by the nearest grouping of grenades. The artillery shells were worthless now. He couldn’t just pick them up and throw them at the enemy.

Coop took a few breaths to psych himself up and get his blood and anger flowing. Something out there had knocked his LACS to the ground. He didn’t remember being notified of any incoming projectiles or energy blasts before his armor went offline, but that didn’t mean whoever had kidnapped the diplomat wasn’t waiting just outside the suit with a plasma cannon to turn Coop into fresh human BBQ. For all he knew, eating him might be a delicacy to the Squids.

<Three…two…one…> With a final pull and heave, Coop pushed the entire back half of the LACS off and emerged into the red-tinted light of the planet.

He took a lung full of what passed for air in this place, and tried not to cough. It was breathable…barely…but it tasted like he was swallowing farts from someone who’d eaten way too many chicken wings. He only let the stench distract him for a second as he scanned for his weapons and any enemies. He’d only completed half of his three hundred and sixty degree turn when something hard hit him in the back. For a second, he’d thought he’d been shot, but then something black and slimy slipped under his chin, around his neck, and started to squeeze.

“Motherfu…” Coop’s curse was cut off as the black tentacle clamped down.

It was stronger than Coop thought, but not strong enough. Coop reached back to grab the Squid he felt clinging to his back. The thing scurried around trying to avoid his grasp, but it wasn’t big enough to evade and choke at the same time. Coop got a hold of it and pulled it off his back, but it did not release his throat. If anything, Coop pulling it away only tightened its grip. Instinct took over and Coop chomped down on the extended tentacle.

The squeal the Squid gave as Coop’s teeth passed through it slimy skin was satisfying. The lime green, putrid blood that shot into Coop’s mouth was not. It made the planet’s pungent air smell like galaxy’s finest aromatherapy.

Coop made sure his priorities were straight. He threw the Squid down on the ground and then drove his boot onto it with a satisfying squish. The thing popped like an over-filled water balloon. After the threat was dealt with, Coop was free to bend over and puke up everything he’d eaten since arriving on this god-forsaken planet.

Even as he puked, Coop staggered over to his armor and wrenched the pistol out of its magnetic lock. The weapons scanned his GIC when he grasped it and allowed him access. An ammo count and targeting sights popped into his vision as the weapon linked with his IOR. He scanned the area again, and saw something black flying through the air at him. Apparently, the squids could jump. The ET had all nine of its tentacles spread wide. They varied in size, but the longest wasn’t more than half a meter. Where all the tentacles met was a ball of tissue. Some sort of mouth opened from that ball and let out a warbling shriek. Maybe it was pissed because Coop killed its girlfriend.

Coop didn’t give two shits. He assumed that the ball of tissue at the squid’s center also held their brain, so he put his targeting icon on that and pulled the trigger. The high-velocity dart wasn’t plasma tipped, but it had more than enough velocity to punch right through the unarmored and unshielded squid. The thing exploded and spread green blood-goo everywhere.

“Fucking disgusting,” Coop spit to cleanse his pallet of ET blood and vomit. By the time he did that the rest of the team had started their own combat molts.

The GYSGT was out first, followed by the SGM, Eve, and the rest. Mike was one of the last out, and he looked a little worse from wear.

“Grab whatever gear you can carry,” the LT was taking the loss of their LACS in stride. “Cooper, Enders, make sure you get those area shields up and running. Without the LACS, that’s the only protection we’ve got now.”

Coop almost argued that there was no way the portable shields were still good if the LACS were dead, but a touch of a button showed the shields were good to go. He’d leave it to smarter people than him to understand how they were still operational when the LACS were nothing more than scrap metal. Instead, he grimaced for two other reasons. First the portable shield weighed a few hundred kilos. Lugging that thing around was going to be a pain in the ass. Second, the LT was right about their lack of protection. Coop grabbed a few grenades and magnetized them to his smartcloth. He put his pistol back on his hip and grabbed his Buss. He put some ammo into pouches he also got from his LACS, and then cannibalized some circuitry from the offline suit to thread through openings to construct a utility belt that he slung diagonally across his body. The shield generator went on his back. He shifted it to make it comfortable, but with the cords there was always going to be something pinching him. SOP if they came under attack was to take cover, unsling and entrench the shield so it couldn’t be targeted, and then return fire. As Coop surveyed the area, there wasn’t a lot of places to take cover.

The team was in the middle of squid slums. Since the ET’s were much shorter than humans that stacked their dwellings high into makeshift towers. Even from where they stood, Coop could see black shapes scurrying in and out of openings in the small boxes. The way they moved using their tentacles sent a shiver down Coop’s spine.

<At least they die easy.> He told himself.

“We need to move to cover. Form up into wedges. Alpha first followed by Bravo. Keep your spacing, but stay within the shields’ range.” The SGM ordered, and that was Coop’s signal to turn on their defense.

The shield hummed to life as Coop connected with his IOR. He made sure the power levels were in the corner of his vision at all times, but not in the way of his targeting apparatus. He wasn’t on point since he was humping the shield. That honor fell to Eve. She pushed out to just under twenty five meters from Coop and stalked forward. She had her sniper rifle out. A regular human carrying the long-barrel rifle would have looked ridiculous, but in the hands of a Ranger it was positively deadly.

Eve posted up against the side of a building and leaned around the edge to scan with her scope. She wasn’t looking for more than a few seconds before the shield sparked from an impact. The retort of Eve’s rifle returning fire was much louder, but it was only a single shot.

{One ET down,} she sent over the IOR. {But we’ve got company.} No sooner had she said it than the whole front portions of the shield lit up from incoming fire.

<Well this sucks.> Coop scanned the area and saw hundreds of the little, Squid fuckers moving around their flanks to completely surround the SRRT. They held small, oddly-shaped weapons in their hands that seemed to fire something similar to a dart.

Currently, hundreds of those rounds were impacting Coop’s shield. He stole a quick glance at the power reading and was happy to see it still at one hundred percent. Whatever the weapons were they weren’t powerful. No sooner had he drawn that conclusion than something big impacted the front of the shield. Fire spread outward around the dome and set several nearby towers on fire. The shrieks of burning Squids filled the area.

<Well shit…this can’t get any worse can it?> The shield’s power level now read ninety-seven percent.

 

***

 

Ezekiel Mackintosh

Location: Capitol City, New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“This is a disaster!” the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth angrily brushed the table in front of him with his outstretched arms. Data chips, polyplast hardcopies, and a cup of coffee went flying.

“Sir!” Connie Price, his chief of staff, gently put a hand on his shoulder.

The conference room at the CEOC was empty except for the two of them, which was good, because Connie didn’t want anyone seeing their leader this way.

“Half a dozen systems, Connie, with over a dozen planets between them.” The PM buried his head in his hands. “Between those planets is close to eleven billion Commonwealth citizens, a hundred trillion in private, corporate, and Commonwealth property, and that doesn’t even cover our casualties.”

Word had finally filtered back to the rear areas that the Windsor’s surprise attack was over, but the results were catastrophic. The PM was lamenting over the six former Commonwealth systems that had been forcibly annexed by the Kingdom. Those were complete losses, but on top of that were the losses in people, Fleet assets, property, and diplomatic relations in the ten other systems that had been attacked and abandoned after being ravaged. System defense forces in all those systems had been completely annihilated if they decided to fight, which most did. That left all these systems defenseless to the Blockies and pirates unless the Fleet moved in. The PM had ordered High Admiral Gilmore to do just that, but these systems were only going to get a few destroyers and maybe a cruiser for the more important ones. All the systems were roughly in the same area of space, and the fleet tasked with guarding them had been seriously mauled at Queensland.

Nearly all of the Eleventh Fleet ships that had been anchored at Queensland were now combat ineffective. Almost half were nothing more than finely-dispersed debris at this point, but the rest were battered husks in need of months in the yard and new crews. The numbers were still coming in, but well over a hundred thousand soldiers and spacers had been lost, and the PM expected that number to keep going up. The High Admiral was pulling elements of the Core Worlds fleets to reinforce the destroyed anchorage and sure up diplomatic ties with the Oceanic Alliance. They’d lost nearly all of their fleet as well.

The one bit of good news was that doctrine for fighting the Windsor’s technological advantage was emerging. The Windsor’s ships were hard to kill but they could be killed. Overwhelming firepower was the key, and all focused on single targets to overwhelm their shields. At the same time, all firepower needed to go on the defensive when volleys came at the Commonwealth and allied ships. The Windsor’s range was twice as large as the Commonwealth’s latest missiles, their EW countermeasures were formidable, and the game was over if they got into energy cannon range. The tactics weren’t good, and the ratio of Commonwealth to Windsor ships destroyed was horrendous, but it did work and was able to rebuff the Windsor’s from the system. Or at least that was what Connie had the media telling the Commonwealth’s citizens. The fact was they’d probably executed a strategic withdrawal and reinforced the conquered systems.

The task force the PM sent to help at Premier Etat de Napoléon had fared a lot better because they barely engaged the enemy. They’d still lost a pair of battleships and a chunk of their escort destroyers and cruisers, but now the EU had their feathers ruffled over the losses. On top of the steaming heap of dog shit the PM had dumped on his own starfaring nation, now their alliance with the EU was frayed. That wouldn’t be good if the Blockies came calling. ADM Berg was still trying to see if the Windsor’s hit the Blockies at all, but he hadn’t heard back from her yet.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m done.” The PM slouched back into his chair. “No one is going to re-elect someone who lost systems. It doesn’t matter what the rest of my record is. This was the largest defeat the Commonwealth has ever been dealt, and it was dealt by a single-system polity. There is no recovering for me. The Eagle Party will win the remaining elections, Simmons will be the new Prime minister, and the Progressive agenda will be over for the next decade.

All Connie could do was pat Ezekiel on the back. She knew he was going to lose. There was no denying that after this attack. “You’ll still be the opposition leader, Sir. You’ll be the thorn in Simmons’ side like she is to you.”

That wasn’t much comfort, but Ezekiel would have to live with it. He only had a few months left on the job, and he’d be playing clean up the entire time. He just hoped his overtures to the Hegemony were going better than their situation at home.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 236

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Coms check,” the SGM stated over TACCOM.

{Coms check,} he reiterated over their IORs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus Chapter – Two Worlds – Chapter 230

Benjamin Gold

Location: Interdimensional Space

“This is it, people. Look alive.” Ben took a deep breath along with the rest of Argo’s bridge occupants.

Aiko was at the helm with a three hundred and sixty degree dome of navigational information flashing around her. Jacobi was on the communications station, which she’d qualified at during the transit. If their exit went terribly wrong, if this was a trap, or anything other than a perfect transition occurred, it was her job to send a QE burst back to New Washington. The Commonwealth capitol was more than ten thousand lights years away. Argo was the first human space craft to sail farther than three thousand light years from Earth, and it would likely be the only to pass the five and ten thousand mark for quite a while. They were only able to do it because of the QE beacon they were honing in on, and as far as Ben knew, the Hegemony hadn’t provided any other beacon codes. He knew they would come with time as trade and diplomacy spread. The Intergalactic relations doctor in him was extremely excited for the upcoming decades.

“Helm?” Ben knew requesting constant updates showed his nervousness, but he couldn’t help himself. They were about to emerge blindly into a solar system belonging to a race that was probably settling other worlds when humans were first learning about fire.

“Transition in three minutes, Sir.” The PO3 couldn’t quite keep the bite out of her voice.

“SRRT is locked and loaded if we run into any trouble.” Jacobi was in scales instead of her V4. Since the V4 wouldn’t fit on the bridge  she didn’t have much of a choice.

A few of the higher-ranking diplomats looked wide-eyed at Jacobi’s statement, but the Minister of Commerce waved them down. So far, she’d been an professional and courteous woman. She’d even admonished one her own staff for the small fight that had broken out during the early part of their transit. That told Ben a lot about her since most senior civilian civil servants tended to look down on the military unless they had multiple golden stripes on their CMUs. The offended, and bruised, diplomat wanted his pound of flesh and the Minister had told him diplomatically to shove it.

<Well it looks like they picked the right negotiator.> Ben had thought back then, and hoped her tact would translate into positive conversations with aliens. Of course, this was all predicated on them thinking like humans, which was never a good assumption to make.

“Commander Gold, I’m getting weird…” Amber, the ship’s new AI began before going silent.

“Shit, skipper…” Aiko swiped data over to the command holo-tank in front of him so he could see what she was seeing.

The data streaming across the screen didn’t make sense. Beyond that, it wasn’t possible. It was essentially a proximity alert in the interdimensional space used for portaling. There was no consensus on what to call this space, but things like warp space, hyperspace,  ID-Space,  and the portal zone were some of the frontrunners.

“What’s happening, Commander?” The Minister had her usual neutral expression plastered on her face, but the slight widening of her eyes showed Ben she was wondering if they were going to get to negotiate at all.

“I…” Ben started.

“Neural handshake established,” Amber interrupted and new data began to scroll across his screen.

Ben read it and breathed a tentative sigh of relief. There were two new contracts on his holo-tank that were showing a friendly green now. They were small crafts, fighters if he had to wager a guess, and they’d taken up flanking positions about five hundred meters on either side of Argo. Amber was identifying them as agents of the Hegemony’s equivalent of the Diplomatic Security Service. Their mission was to ensure the human diplomats got to the conference safely. They’d uploaded course headings for when they reached their exit portal and would accompany them until they touched down.

Ben’s relief was only momentary until his strategic mind kicked in. Not only were the Hegemony fighters able to contact them while portaling in interdimensional space, but they were able to locate them, and if someone could find and see you then they could just as easily shoot you.

<Carol and Bob left out that point when they sold us on portaling technology.> Ben wondered if the Hegemony would be able to interdict human ships that traveled in an Alcubierre Bubble, and made a mental note to discuss it with people a lot smarter than him.

The Minister, Jacobi, and Aiko were clearly just as shaken as Ben, but they kept their cool for several minutes until the static-look of interdimensional space receded to normal space.

“Oh my God.” Ben wasn’t particularly religious, but his holo-tank lit up like a Christmas tree on crack. “Amber, how many contacts am I looking at?”

“I am reading three hundred and fifty-nine thousand two hundred and three friendly contacts within our one minute light bubble.” The AI replied calmly.

Argo’s silicon brain might be taking it in stride, but Ben was dealing with information overload as more ships than he’d ever seen in the entire Solar System were suddenly within one light minute of his ship.

<And some of them are…> Ben kept his mouth from dropping when a few registered in the hundred-million ton range. He seriously hoped those were cargo ships or else any military engagement with the Hegemony would be short and not so sweet for humanity.

Through all of the traffic, Aiko followed the course provided by the fighters that exited the portal right beside them. They helped form a bubble around Argo as the gunboat continued into the heart of the system. Ben expected the traffic to be worse around the portaling points and get better the closer they got to their destination. He was right, but not by much. By the time they reached The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude, Ben had counted over a million vessels traversing the system.

Ben doubted the Commonwealth had that many ships at all…and then there was the city itself. <What have we gotten ourselves into?> he wondered as they pulled into the most weirdly-lavished, over-the-top dockyard Ben would ever see.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

{Stand down.} The command came over their IORs. All communication that wasn’t done in-person was to be done over the IORs. The techies weren’t confident TACCOM and STRATENET would keep the more-advanced Hegemony out of their coms chatter, so they wanted to use the only Hegemony-level tech the SRRT was equipped with.

Coop was sure the people making the suggestion didn’t know how firmly their heads were shoved up their asses. If they just listened, he could have told them from firsthand experience that the Hegemony could crack their TACCOM and STRATNET encryption. Also, he didn’t think it made sense for them to rely on IORs solely either. After all, it was Hegemony tech and if someone knew of a way to get around it then it would be the Hegemony.

He felt gravitas was lent to his opinion when Argo went on high alert while still portaling to their destination. If the Hegemony could locate and interact with a ship in whatever quasi-space this was then they sure as shit could get hack into someone’s IOR. The only question was if the recipient would know what was happening.

All of this made Coop feel extra warm and fuzzy that they shot a little poop nugget into his bloodstream and put him in a coma so it could fester in his brain like a little parasite. <Another great life choice, Cooper,> he admonished himself.

When the command came down from the LT, who’d only just recently undergone the IOR procedure, the SRRT didn’t relax. They were in an alien star system, over ten thousand lightyears from home, and surrounded by threats they could identify, or even quantify. Some of the diplomats waiting in the bay were excited about reports of high-level traffic in the system. They were talking mostly about the trade implications, but Coop didn’t see it that way.

<People who have lots of shit tend to have lots of guns to protect their shit.> From the rumblings he was hearing there was a whole lot of shit in this system.

“Ok, listen up.” The SGM cut off his thoughts. “Everyone knows their jobs: Bravo close, Alpha far, stay buttoned up at all times, and call out if anything jumps out as suspicious. We’re forty-five minutes out. The ET’s have their own security accompanying us, but we’re in charge of our people. Understood?”

“Yes, Sergeant Major.”

“Good. Let’s make a good impression on our alien hosts, and maybe we’ll be invited back.” The SGM wasn’t looking for laughter and he didn’t get any.

There was only one problem. <We can’t stay buttoned up since we can’t get out of this tin can in the V4s, so we’re going to look like incompetent morons when we have to lift the suits out and armor up in front of whoever is waiting for us.>

He felt Argo settle into its final destination just as he finished disembarking his LACS.

“One small step for mankind and all that stuff,” Eve stated as she started pushing her grav-sled toward the hatch.

Coop shrugged and grinned. “Yeah, let’s try not to fall on our collective face.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 228

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Argo had changed. Coop recognized that the minute they got on board. He didn’t have too much time to explore right away because they had to lug all of their gear onto the gunboat, and whoever had assigned this mission wanted the SRRT to have everything at their disposal. Getting the weapons, now-obsolete coms, and little gadgets designed just for the team’s special mission needs was easy, but the V4’s were not designed to fit in the ship. It was the first design flaw, and from Coop’s perspective a major oversight. The LCDR ended up getting involved and the brass had to come down and take a look.

“Well shit,” the industrial titan deadpanned. “You think you’ve thought of everything and then you realize you’ve missed something big.” He shook his head, but couldn’t stop from chuckling. “We can’t fix it now, but we’ll do a refit when you return from this mission. What we need is a way to get the LACS on the ship. Any suggestions?”

“Yeah, have someone from the Infantry present in your design sessions next time.” Coop muttered to Mike. Who simply nodded his agreement.

Coop’s big friend was out of the hospital and back on the team. Coop didn’t think he was one hundred percent yet, maybe eighty-five percent, but the big guy still wasn’t back to normal. Coop noticed Mike would jump a little if he didn’t know you were there and started talking to him. Coop hoped the big guy’s situational awareness improved because that was key in combat.

Coop knew this was his friend’s first time being wounded in combat. He’d done several operations back with the 2222nd, and in RADM Nelson’s strike force that successfully pushed back the Blockies before being forced to withdraw by the Windsor’s. He’d even made it through the terrorist attack and follow-up operations without a scratch, while Coop got part of his arm melted off by flaming chaff. Mike needed to know that getting injured was part of the lifestyle he was living, but the other half of that coin was top-of-the-line healthcare. Coop could attest to that. He had a brand new leg, and his arm looked fine aside from the growing hair trying to catch up with the rest of him. Coop made a mental note to talk to his friend about his experiences.

In the end, it was the ground pounders that came up with the simple solution to turn the LACS horizontal and load them that way. It worked, but at a cost. The grav-lifts that were designed to move the suits couldn’t maintain their fields when half the suit was in the ship and half wasn’t. That mean that not only was it the infantry who came up with the simple solution, but it was the grunts that got to physically lift the suits into the ship and onto the waiting grav-sleds. Combined with their own size and bulk, it meant only two could make the lift at a time. Since Coop permanently seemed to be on someone’s shit list he got to do it.

He quickly found out that running around in a LACS and being forced to lift it with just his arms and shoulders was completely different. By the time they’d got the team’s suits onboard his CMUs were drenched in sweat, but he still had a long time to go before he could hit the head.

The first big change Coop noticed about Argo was that engineering was bigger now. Coop imagined it took up ten percent more space than before, and instead of a normal hatch, a high-security door blocked their path. If the ship took a hit from a missile this door looked like it would survive. To make matters even more frustrating only the navy crew had access to the engineering space. Since Coop wasn’t going to dig his grave any deeper with Aiko, he resigned himself to never getting to see the new gear back there.

The next part, which was unexpected and unwanted, were the changes to grunt country. Argo’s space for her infantry component was now an open squad bay format. The V4 LACS were back in the armory, which was thankfully bigger to accommodate them, but there was still the issue of their height. The new suits were several centimeters too big, so they had to fold the neck and head area down at a ninety-degree angle to get them in the charger. They looked like slumbering, metal giants who were going to wake up with a serious crick in their necks.

“We’re going to be stuffed soup to nuts in here,” the GYSGT commented at the more-than-normal number of cots. At least twenty people would be sleeping back here.

Coop’s face brightened up, and he opened his mouth at the perfect setup, but Eve beat him to it. “If you say anything about your nuts being near peoples’ faces I’m going to cut them off.”

“You’ve been telling me that since I met you and they’re still here,” Coop grabbed his cojones and the team laughed. They laughed even harder when Eve’s hands blurred to produce her combat knife, which she then mimed slicing off Coop’s dick. It was a good way to embrace the suck that the cramped quarters was going to produce, but just to be safe, Coop made sure his bed kept his junk away from Eve.

The other section of grunt country was the VR simulator, which was the same size. That surprised Coop, because he believed with the reduced crew compliment that the gunboat would put more effort into the needs of the SRRT. After all, the ship’s mission was to ferry them around. From what he could tell, weapons systems hadn’t changed from what he remembered, so where was the extra space. He took a stroll into navy country and saw that their stuff was cut down too. There used to be state rooms for the skipper, XO, NCOIC, and the infantry detachment commander. Now, Coop just saw two rooms with LCDR and LT Wentworth’s names on them. The space occupied by the former two rooms, and a considerable more amount of space, comprised another compartment with another high-security door. At that door, a big man in a Gold Technologies security uniform stood guard. He had a sidearm at his side and didn’t look like he was going to budge for anyone.

<What the fuck?> Coop didn’t test the man, but made a note to tell the SGM. <This is a navy boat. If anyone needs to guard shit it’s supposed to be us not some Corpie.>

When all was said and done, Coop didn’t like the changes he saw. There were too many places the majority of the crew couldn’t go, it wasn’t set up for the new combat suits despite months in the top-secret facility for refit, and their first mission was a sensitive diplomatic one where the people who were supposed to be sensitive and diplomatic would be treated like sardines for the length of transit.

No one on board was briefed about the length of their trip until they arrived on Thurgood Station. It had only taken the upgraded gunboat two days to get there, which Coop could get used to. He’d read the star chart and knew that they had an advantageous route to the Rim system, but it was still impressive. He’d been a little nervous to do the whole portaling bit, but it turned out to be no different than traveling by Alcubierre Drive.

Those two days went pretty well…then the second half of their party arrived. Coop and the rest of the SRRT new quarters were cramped. They didn’t like it, but they accepted it. Apparently, cramped to a soldier was equivalent to unacceptable for a civilian. When the Minister’s entourage saw the space they immediately complained to their boss. The Minister’s eyebrows climbed into her hairline when she saw how cramped it was. LCDR Gold had already given up his cabin to her, and LT Wentworth was moved back to the bay as a result.

“Lieutenant Commander,” the Minister’s voice was calm but firm. “This situation is unacceptable. We’re people not cattle. We can’t travel like this. Our voyage is three weeks one way, and we’re going to have serious morale problems.”

Coop was using his better-than-average hearing to eavesdrop on the conversation, and his jaw dropped at the new information. Sure he’d seen the two darts on a star chart back in New Savannah, but there was a difference between seeing the distance and hearing how long it would take to get there; especially since they’d gone from the end of the Core to the Rim in two days.

Coop looked around and saw a similar expression on Eve’s face. They caught each other’s eyes and shared a brief mental conversation that consisted of two words…<Fuck me.> Because despite the Minister’s urgings, there was nothing the LCDR could do. Limited space was limited space, and no matter what way you looked at it you couldn’t change it.

The crew and guests of the Argo set off after a one-day resupply layover at Thurgood Station. Morale wasn’t great to start and they went a total of two days before someone finally snapped.

It was twenty-one hundred and everyone was settling in for another restless night of sleep. Truthfully, the soldiers were sleeping better than the civilians. They had the necessary experience and claimed the good bunks already, plus they were able to naturally sleep through the snores, farts, and general racket of a ship in transit. The civilians were used to comfy, body-conforming, nano-laced beds in quiet homes on New Washington, but they weren’t stupid. They quickly figured out the soldiers had picked the best spots, but they attributed their restless sleep more to that than the soldiers’ increased ability to sleep whenever and wherever possible.

Coop had just put his hands behind his head and was drifting off to the rhythmic hullabaloo of some hydraulic system nearby when it happened.

“Ok, that’s enough!” Coop recognized the voice as one of the senior delegation members. He was an older man, with blue in his eyes, salt and pepper hair, and who obviously thought he was hot shit. Despite that, Coop couldn’t remember the guy’s name for the life of him. “I’ve had it up to here with this bullshit. You! Switch bunks with me.”

Coop didn’t open his eyes and awaited the coming argument. He’d kept a low profile so far and he was determined to keep that up. He was on good terms with Eve, Aiko didn’t glare at him every time they passed in the corridors, and he was on an all-inclusive vacation courtesy of the Commonwealth military to a place referred to as The Golden City. He’d decided to look at the glass as half full.

“Hello! I’m talking to you!” It was the spittle hitting Coop’s face that made him groan and open his eyes. The diplomat was standing over Coop. His face was beat-red and a purple vein was throbbing in his forehead.

“Excuse me?” Coop answered politely.

“You heard me. I’m ordering you to switch with me!”

“Sorry, but no,” Coop replied.

If steam could come out of a person’s ears this diplomat would look like one of those old riverboats Coop saw in period dramas on the holo.

“That’s not a suggestion pri…lie…soldier.” The man’s sputtering made it clear he couldn’t identify the three chevrons of a sergeant on Coop’s CMUs. Internally, Coop wept for the success of this mission. “Do you know what my military-equivalent rank is?” It was a rhetorical question because the man screamed the answer half a second later. “Captain! I am the equivalent of an infantry Captain. They command divisions of a hundred thousand soldiers like you. So get out of the bed and switch with me now!”

Coop tried his best, but he couldn’t stop himself from laughing, which only made the situation ten times worse.

“Get on your fucking feet! NOW!” The man screamed, and Coop though he was going to have a stroke right then and there.

Coop looked around for backup, but the SGM, GYSGT, SSG Hightower, and LT were all at some briefing on the bridge. Eve was there, but she was already asleep, and sleeping right through all of this.

<Thanks for that.> Coop sighed and got to his feet determined to take the high road. He saw Mike watching as he did.

“Respectfully, Sir, you need to return to your bed,” Coop was calm and collected. The diplomat was tall and thin, but Coop easily dwarfed him. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the man.

“No! You need to get out of my face and let me get some sleep in my new bed.” The man punctuated the statement by giving Coop a two-handed shove. Coop didn’t even move, but the man stumbled backward. “I’m warning you kid. I will ruin your life. Your career is going to be over. I will make it my personal mission in life to ensure you can’t get a job selling hot dogs at a hover food truck.”

“Sir, do not put your hands on my person again.” Coop answered respectively, but firmly. “Please return to your bunk and try to get some sleep. It will help this situation.”

Instead the man gave Coop another push which had the same result as the first time. “GET OUT OF MY WAY!” The man had well and truly lost it.

Eve was starting to wake up now, and was immediately alert and assessing the situation.

“This is your second warning, Sir. Do not place your hands on me again.” Coop couldn’t stop from sounding bored at this point, and that seemed to push the diplomat over the edge.

The man cocked back a fist and threw it right at Coop’s face. Blockies on the other side of space saw how much the guy telegraphed his move, and Coop was easily able to dodge it. The man fell forward off balance and over extended, so Coop brought up his knee into the guy’s diaphragm to keep him from falling over. The result was the guy getting the wind knocked out of him, a bruised rib, collapsing to the floor, and being completely humiliated in front of his underlings in the bay.

So naturally he yelled some threats after he was able to catch his breath and went off the fetch mommy to fight his battles for him. Coop didn’t give two shits. The guy was an asshole, he’d instigated this, he threw the first, second, and third punches, so Coop knew the LCDR would have his back. Plus, if this was the diplomat the Commonwealth was sending to negotiate with the aliens then Coop was way more fucked then he would be for whatever charge they would trump up against him.

When he caught Eve’s eye he just shrugged. {I tried.}

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