Two Worlds – Chapter 223

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

It had been a week since the clandestine meeting with Hailey, and Coop hadn’t heard anything. The PAD just sat there silently. He would have been more than happy to sit back with a cold beer, turn on the holo, and try and get back on Eve or Aiko’s good sides, but Coop’s idea of a good time didn’t mesh with the SGM’s.  When Coop had returned from the meeting, the SGM hadn’t given him enough time to take a shit before being ordered to get into his PT uniform and assigned tasks to complete. Coop hadn’t cleaned his LACS after the exercise, and after a ten kilometer run, he spent the rest of his first day back on regular military duty picking pieces of moon dirt out of his LACS’ crevices.

Every day was like that. PT was followed by classroom exercises in their new equipment with the resident civilian engineers and Carol in attendance. The afternoon was more practical application of the hardware and software, either in VR, or on the system defense force’s ranges set up outside the city when available. Coop thought the SRRTs were supposed to be special, but since the anti-terrorism operation, they acted just like any other military unit Coop had ever been a part of.

“Everyone finish up. We’re on the truck in ten.” The SGM stuck his head into the small NCO chow hall.

Coop had no idea what truck he was referring to, but he knew where they were picked up for exercises, so he planned out the next ten minutes to ensure they would be there on time. He wanted to know what they were doing, but he didn’t bother looking it up. Eve would already have the training schedule up on her PAD, so there was no point wasting time when he could be eating.

“The schedule says we’re slated for inventory and technological familiarization,” Eve frowned at the screen in front of her before folding it up and putting it back in her CMU’s pocket.

Coop was pretty sure the SGM tried to make things as vague as possible just to fuck with them. He’d learned long ago not to get worked up about it. Instead, he shoveled the powdered eggs into his mouth and took a big gulp of coffee.

“Well we better get to it.” Coop rose and deposited his tray in the auto-cleaner before heading out. It was a short walk to the loading bay, and he was there a full three minutes early. Despite that, SSG Hightower and GYSGT Cunningham were already present and getting things squared away.

Coop fell into the front row of the small formation next to Eve. As the lowest man on the totem pole, he was to the far left. Usually, Mike would be standing behind him, but the big guy was still recovering from having his guts repaired.

With a minute to go the SGM appeared behind the wheel of a civilian van. He got out along with LCDR Gold, and LT Wentworth. The two officers walked to the back of the formation where they took their place. Aiko was also back there with the LCDR. As a spacer, she stood apart from the infantry formation. Coop would have turned around to talk to her earlier, but their relationship was still best described as frosty. Eve was warming back up to his presence, but the warmer Eve got the colder Aiko got, and vice versa. They were opposite ends of a weighted scale, and Coop was growing more convinced that he would have to work on repairing one relationship while ignoring the other. Either way, he feared for his personal safety.

<There’s no wrath like a woman scorned.> He wasn’t sure if he got the quote right, and didn’t really care. He just didn’t want to wake up one night with a knife in him, or something important missing. The woman who placed it would determine the target.

“Cooper!” The GYSGT snapped him out of his little trance. Everyone else was hoping in the van while he was still standing there.

“Just keeping you on your toes, Gunney.” Coop automatically replied back as he jumped into action. Because he’d been the last to move he got the honor of sitting up front with the Gunney.

He noticed the officers and Aiko weren’t present. That would normally prompt some questions from him, but one look at the GYSGT told him to keep his mouth shut. If anything, she looked a little nervous. Cunningham never looked nervous.

Squished next to the GYSGT would have been an uncomfortable ride, but they ended up not going far. Less than three kilometers later, they pulled to a stop in front of the base’s hospital. Coop’s o-shit-o-meter immediately spiked from curious to ‘what-the-fuck-is-going-on’ when he saw a dozen doctors waiting for them with poorly-concealed, eager looks on their faces.

When the doors to the van opened, the docs began calling out names like they were trying to herd a group of kindergarteners.

“Sergeant Cooper…Sergeant Mark Cooper! A pair of female doctors yelled from the periphery.

“That’s me.” Coop walked toward them and shouldered aside people in his path. That knocked a few of the other doctors to the ground, but he ignored their glares. Coop had been in the military long enough to know they were about to be given some sort of medical procedure. Knowing what he did about the SRRT, Coop did not have a warm and fuzzy feeling about whatever experiment they were about to conduct with some untested alien technology. Getting reassurances from a giant, floating tree that things were going to work did not fill him with confidence.

“Come with us,” they grabbed him by the hand and led him into a side door of the building.

Normally, two attractive women leading him somewhere would be cause for a celebration. Not this time. They descended several stories into what could be called the bowels of the facility where several clean rooms had been set up.

“Undress and put this on.” The doctors deposited him in front of a set of doors leading to one of the clean rooms. Coop was expecting some type of hospital gown to be the new uniform of the day, but instead they gave him what looked like a tight shower cap and nothing else. There were glowing data relays, processors, and sensor nodes on the cap, which further heightened Coop’s anxiety.

“So I’m just going to rock out with my junk out for this?” Coop yelled after the doctors as they retreated to some sort of command room. He never got a response, and doubted he would. If they were going to be uncomfortable with the all the nudity then that was just the flavor of the day. For whatever they were about to do to him, they could deal with him hanging brain.

With a sigh, he undressed and put the shower cap thingy on his head. There was nothing for a moment until the form-fitting material suctioned to his head. It was tight, but not unbearably so. The weirdest part was that the cap was slightly warm.

“Welcome, Ladies and Gentleman, to another exciting day in the advancement of mankind.” Thomas Gold’s voice announced over unseen speakers.

<This guy again.> Coop rolled his eyes and wondered who was really in control of this SRRT: the Commonwealth or Gold Technologies.

The corporate titan went on for a minute or so, but Coop didn’t pay attention, and only tuned back in when he said, “Thanks for all you are doing.” That seemed to be a cue, and one of the two doctors entered the clean room in a biohazard suit.

<Now I’ve got the warm and fuzzies.> Coop didn’t even try to flirt, and he looked at her hand with apprehension when she held it out.

“Sergeant Cooper, I’m going to need your consent for this part.”  The doctors produced a PAD. Coop looked at what was in her other hand and fought back a shiver.

Inside an injector, balanced in clear fluid, was a small seed. Unlike some, Coop knew exactly what the thing was. He’d seen one modeled to RADM Nelson back on New Lancashire before everything went to shit.

<Bioseed.> Coop cringed as he remembered what Bob had called it. It looked like a slimy sunflower seed, but was a medium brown color. It looked like a small, oozing poop nugget that was slowly diluting the clear fluid in the injector.

“I would like to introduce all of you to the Individualized Organic Router.” Thomas Gold stated with definitive pride.

Coop bit his lip but couldn’t help himself. “Why not just continue calling it a Bioseed?”

There was silence for a moment, and Coop could practically feel the SGM and GYSGT glaring at him from whatever clean room they were sitting naked in. One small blessing was that the windows were tinted for privacy.

“Focus group testing suggests that people are uncomfortable with the seed terminology. It makes them envision something growing inside of them. An IOR conjures more of a mechanical image that we’re accustomed to when dealing with technology.” Gold’s explanation sounded like part of a rehearsed sales pitch.

“But just to be clear,” Coop just couldn’t leave well enough alone. “It is still an organic seed that we’re about take, which will grow and intermingle with our brain to create the pathways to route and connect with alien information systems that we haven’t developed yet?”

“Correct.”

“Cool. As long as we’re all on the same page.” Coop flexed his left arm several times until the veins started to pop. Then he tapped it with his right hand’s middle and pointer finger. “Let’s go, Doc, shoot me up.”

“Sergeant Cooper has given consent to proceed.” The doctor said to the PAD for legal reasons.

She approached, pressed the injector against a throbbing vein, and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp, stabbing pain, but Coop ignored it. He’d had a leg crunched by massively increased gravity. This was nothing. What was worse was the feeling of blood pushing the seed along. It was small enough to be moved along in his enhanced veins, but just barely. Now Coop knew what it was like to have a blood clot.

He looked around and tried to see through his clean room partition and into the next one over. He imagined Eve sitting at the edge of her bed with her face screwed up in disgust.

“Cheers!” Coop yelled while pantomiming clinking glasses together in the window’s direction although no one but the doctors monitoring him could see or hear him.

His doctor came over and pushed his arm back down while monitoring his vitals. What Coop didn’t know was that he would be sitting there for the next thirty-six hours while the IOR made its way gradually to his brain. After that, he and the rest of the SRRT were put into a medically-induced coma to allow the IOR to reproduce more quickly and establish itself. Normally, this would happen more gradually while people slept, but the infantry didn’t have time to waste. There were things to do, people to kill, wars to win, and interstellar diplomacy to consider. The SRRT teams were needed fully operational yesterday, and no one was willing to wait for things to progress naturally.

Coop just had to embrace the suck and deal with it.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 208

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“Doesn’t this place have fucking swatters?” Coop fumed.

Sunlight had already peaked over the horizon and two of New Savannah’s three moons had set. The temperature had already crept back up from slightly bearable, to an instant recipe for ass soup, and the lingering chaff in the air around the defense complex wasn’t helping.

“It does.” GYSGT Cunningham stood in front of him. “The S2 section is investigating to see why they were late to this party.”

Coop’s temper didn’t let up, if anything, it intensified. Only some of that had to do with the colossal clusterfuck that had occurred as all the VIPs exited the Gold’s shindig. A few of the VIPs ended up having a blast…literally.

“Those swatters should have been spun up and ready to go. For fuck’s sake, you can put the damn things on auto and just let them sit there to do their job!” For the millionth time, Coop had to resist the urge to scratch a new hole in his arm. One was enough at the moment.

A translucent gelcast, encasing a few liters of blue goo, covered his arm from shoulder to elbow. From what the rest of the team told him, the medics had stabilized him quickly once they arrived and transported him to the complex’s small hospital, which was overrun with much more seriously injured people. A doctor quickly fit him with the cast, poured in the nanite-rich solution, and kicked him out to make room for one of the VIPs whose legs had been crushed. That was fine with Coop. He didn’t want to be there anyway.

The one thing Coop regretted was not taking the drugs the doc offered him. He warned Coop that the itching and irritation of the nanites repairing his damaged tissue would be unpleasant, but Coop shrugged it off. He thought he could take it. Now…he felt like ripping the arm off and beating the swatter operators to death with it.

<If I was all doped up I wouldn’t be able to help catch who did this.> He reminded himself as he bit his tongue and settled with digging his fingernails into the tabletop.

“Intel didn’t know the New Savannah Liberation Movement had that type of ordinance.” SGM Queen announced as he walked into the room with a purposeful stride.

Everyone in the room hopped to their feet as LT Wentworth and LCDR Gold followed. Except for Coop. He just held up his gelcast as his excuse. The two officers didn’t seem like they cared, but the look on GYSGT’s face said she was going to rip him a new asshole when this was all over.

“This is the same intel section that is investigating the swatter fuck up?” Coop asked. “Sounds to me like our lovely S2 section is oh for two today. Maybe someone else should take over so they can get their shit together.”

“Stow it, Cooper.” SSG Hightower and the GYSGT snapped at the same time.

“No, that’s quite alright.” A third officer entered the room with a PAD in hand and LCDR stripes on her CMUs. She quickly waved the SRRT off before they could get to their feet. “As the sergeant so aptly put it, we fucked up.” As she tapped her PAD, screens began to spring to life around the room.

The screens looked like overhead satellite footage of the city. Coop could make out the general shape of the defense complex, along with the number of city parks within the city limits. Judging by the lighting, this was real-time data.

“Ma’am, this is my team. Team, this is ma’am. No other form of address is necessary.” The SGM made the introductions.

<Oh great. A spook.> Coop just couldn’t wait to see how this turned out.

“Good morning…at least for some of you.” Her eyes fell on Coop and his cast, and Coop couldn’t help but glare at the not-so-subtle dig. “It goes without saying that any and all information you receive today is classified.” She waited until getting a nod from everyone in the room before continuing. “New Savannah is a modern planet, with the full resources of the Commonwealth at its disposal. As such, we have an integrated human and signal intelligence network in place. It is standard operating procedure anywhere where we conduct R&D research for the fleet. The various corporations have their own intelligence apparatuses, and they’ve dutifully handed over any intelligence they’ve collected. The result is a comprehensive look at what occurred last night.”

The screens began to blur as they rewound from the live feed, passed a few bright flashes, and finally settled into what Coop assumed was occurring right before the attack. Coop was surprised they caught the whole thing on camera, but then he stopped and really thought about it, and wasn’t surprised at all. When something big ever went down in the PHA the cops always caught who did it. Now it made sense how. They were always watching.

“Gold Technologies scrubbed through their SIGINT of everything happening before and during the party, and found one call that raised a red flag.” The LCDR played a recording of a person, using voice-altering tech, negotiating fees for intel on air-car tracking. The speakers didn’t directly say what they were doing, but hindsight being twenty-twenty after the attack, everything fit.

“We might have caught it earlier, but the node this went through was processing millions of calls, and the speakers weren’t using any of the code words built into the algorithm, so we missed it.”

<Oh for three.> Coop wondered how the LCDR still had a job.

She fast forwarded the video until right before the attack and zoomed in on the area around the defense complex area. “The unknown speaker made their deal with the liberation movement, and they moved people into position here, here, here, and here under cammo netting to completely encircle the complex.” She highlighted a few nondescript locations in red. They looked just like the surrounding environment on the footage, which was what cammo netting was supposed to do.

Coop looked around the room, but no one looked like they were going to ask the obvious question, so he’d have to bite that bullet. “Where’d they get the cammo netting?”

“Stolen off a vehicle disabled in one of the voting booth bombings.” The LCDR answered without missing a beat and moved on.

She fast forwarded a little farther until the first blossom of a shoulder launched surface-to-air missile sprang to life on the holo. “From what we retrieved from the launch sites, we confirmed they were firing Javelin X’s.” A schematic of the weapons system sprang to life in front of them.

HI school had Coop memorizing a lot of different weapons systems. The Javelin X’s had been one of them, and all the stats came flooding back to him. It was an older weapons system, but a favorite of anyone who couldn’t get modern military tech. Its genius lay in its guidance system. It was the first surface-to-air system developed that allowed the firer to target anti-grav waves, which made it great for shooting down anything flying without old-school fuel thrusters. It also had IR targeting, so it could shoot down those with fuel thrusters, and a line of sight option. Weapons had grown a whole lot smarter in the hundred and fifty years since the Javelin X’s production ended, but the Commonwealth had made a lot of the weapons, and many of them had ended up in the wrong hands.

It had a maximum range of thirty kilometers, and a highly explosive warhead that would punch a hole in a Spyder if it was able to hit one. Judging by the short distance the rocket teams fired from, shooting those air cars was like shooting fish in a barrel. Coop had never seen fish in a barrel, but he assumed they were easy to kill.

Coop watched the holos continue playing. The rebels waited until a good number of air-cars were mobile before rapid firing. That was the other beauty of the Javelin X. The multiple payload missiles. A single warhead fired from the launcher, but once it locked onto its target and got within a certain distance, the warhead threw out ten smaller missiles, thus the roman numeral X in the name. The manufacturers of the original design knew it was a constant arms race to keep up with the latest defensive tech, so once the enemy figured out a way to spoof the Javelin X’s systems, the manufacturers wanted to have a backup. That backup was quantity. Point defense, a swatter, or one hell of a pilot was what you needed to get away from those missiles, and judging by what Coop saw on the holos, a lot of the VIPs didn’t have that.

“The liberation movement was smart about it. This was their golden opportunity for a decapitation strike on the planetary government and fleet personnel. They made it count, and they pulled out all the stops.”

Coop watched as an air-car expertly avoided a missile by executing a ninety-degree turn around a building that must have taxed the internal dampeners to the breaking point. Unfortunately, the missile computed that it couldn’t make the same turn and detonated once it cleared the building. The blast didn’t destroy the air-car, but it caused enough damage to the engines that an emergency landing was required, and judging by the video, at least one person was injured.”

The LCDR zoomed back out to the bigger picture where the air-cars were employing their defensive countermeasures. Those countermeasures were fairly effective despite the quantity of threats they had to deal with. Still, Coop saw several air-cars go down as fiery wrecks. He didn’t see the SRRT running for cover on the holos, but he saw the cloud of chaff covering most of the defense complex.

“Casualties?” Lt Wentworth asked.

“As of when I walked in here…fourteen, including the planetary governor, Admiral Danvers with most of his staff, Savannah City’s police commissioner, and several other local politicians and business leaders.”

“Sounds like they completed their mission.” Coop didn’t mean to say it too loud, but everyone in the room picked it up. “I’m just saying…they went for a decapitation strike, and they killed the planet’s political and military leaders. I’d be worried about local defense force ships coming under enemy control now.” Coop’s eyes looked upward. He’d never seen orbital bombardments, and he was eternally grateful for that.

“There were a few scuffles on a few ships,” the LCDR spook answered. “But it doesn’t look like the movement was able to penetrate the crews well. The cops and soldiers on the ground are a different story. We’re already receiving reports that towns, cities, and even an entire province in one case are declaring independence from the Commonwealth.”

“That’s for the local defense forces to handle.” The SGM stepped forward to retake control of the conversation. “What this whole shitstorm gives our team is a golden training opportunity. Lieutenant Commander.” He waved for the officer to continue to play the footage.

After the rocket teams rapid fired their payloads, they scattered. Spyders on alert five, were in the air within a minute and hunting them down. Three of the four teams found themselves on the business end of an air-to-surface missile or a 35mm cannon with explosive shells. However, the fourth team made it to a nearby road, and into a vehicle that hauled ass toward the city despite several occasions when a nearby Spyder could have lit them up.

“Cooper, what did I say our mission parameters as a Splitstream Rapid Response Team were?” The SGM turned on Coop.

“Uh…” Coop quickly searched his memory, “isn’t it sabotage, covert insertion, reconnaissance, and target elimination.”

“Are you asking me a question or is that your answer, Cooper?” The SGM just stood there waiting.

“That’s my answer, Sergeant Major.”

<If I’m wrong, at least I’m answering wrong with confidence.> Coop mentally shrugged and waited to get chewed out.

“Correct.” The SGM turned back to the rest of the team. “We’re going to study this intel, execute a covert insertion, recon the objective, or objectives, and when given the green light, eliminate the targets. Questions?”

Coop had an unrelated question, but he didn’t raise his hand. Everyone in the room looked like they were ready for some payback, and no one wanted to hear him ask where the nearest bathroom was. Getting the guys who’d successfully destabilized the local political and military landscape was a lot more important than the shit Coop needed to take.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 205

Noah Grisham

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

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

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

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

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

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

THUMP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And, Smitty…”

“Yeah…”

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

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

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 204

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two hundred,” he stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

Benjamin Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 202

Benjamin Gold

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

On a normal world, the setting sun would have brought about some relief from the strangling humidity on New Savannah, but as Ben walked through one of the city’s many parks, he felt no such relief. New Savannah had three moons, one was occupied as the system defense force and Commonwealth Fleet’s main anchorage in the system. The second belonged to none other than Gold Technologies, and the third was split between a few other defense contractors.

The moons were crucial to defense and industry in the system. It gave the defensive units a hundred million kilometer buffer between any invading force and the planet full of civilians. As for the corporations, while their headquarters might be on New Savannah, all the real work got done up on the moons. Operational security dictated that a lot of the testing of new weapons and equipment couldn’t be done around populated areas, so a barren moon was the best option. Although, Gold Technologies’ moon wasn’t quite barren. It had a small, domed city with nearly a hundred thousand people living in it, and if projections continued to hold steady, there was even talk about terraforming the moon into a livable home.

As Ben walked the street of New Savannah, he didn’t care about any of that. He was concerned with the extra light the three moons threw off and the hell it played with the circadian rhythm that humanity was forced to evolve beyond as it spread from planet to planet, none of which lined up exactly with Earth.

“So…who are you voting for?” Ben turned to his companion for the evening.

Jacobi Wentworth was dressed just like Ben, to impress. Both were in their CMUs on the dress setting. Those were their orders for the evening. Both might have thought it was a slight conflict of interest to be dining at the behest of a corporation, but RADM Stillwater had told them to go. Although Ben and Jacobi didn’t really like the ranking Commonwealth officer on the planet, they still had to follow his orders. It made it just that more awkward that the person inviting them was Ben’s dad.

“The way I always do: Progressive,” Jacobi answered nonchalantly.

The response stopped Ben in his tracks, and she continued to walk a few steps before realizing he’d dropped behind. “Seriously?” Ben couldn’t stop the word from coming out condescendingly. “You want Mackintosh to stay in power?”

Jacobi frowned at him, and placed her hands on her hips. Her single platinum stripe caught one of the moon’s light, which also highlighted the intensity in her eyes. “I believe in the party platform, Ben. The Commonwealth should be doing more. We shouldn’t just be confined to matters of security, trade, and taxation. I think some other common principles between the Commonwealth’s member systems should be explored more.” Her hands went from her hips to crossed across her chest in a classic defensive cue. “So, I suppose you’re an Eagle supporter.”

“I do not think the current administration has managed the Commonwealth well over the last several years.” Ben didn’t back down, but he held any bite out of his tone. “The Prime Minister pushed this big education reform, spent billions on it, and it never gained any traction. That’s just one example. The Commonwealth was designed the way it was, to only deal with matters of security, trade, and taxation, because our founders knew that anything else wasn’t going to work out. The differences between New Washington and Asgard, New Lancashire and New Savannah, even Earth and Mars, make trying to shove everyone into a single way of doing things impossible and dangerous.”

“I’m not saying that everyone should have to do everything the same,” Jacobi countered.

“But that isn’t the way humans and power act,” Ben interrupted. “Once they get one thing, especially if it is something as contentious as education, across the Commonwealth, they’re going to want another, and another. Soon, they’re going to demand everyone think the way they do, and anything other than that mindset is deemed inferior or even hateful.”

“I think that’s taking it too far.” Jacobi frowned.

“History says otherwise,” Ben was ready to list off half a dozen examples from Ancient Rome to pre-expansion America, but she waved him off.

“So, I bet you think the Eagles way of outsourcing everything to corporations is the best way to do it.” Now it was her turn to fight back.

“It’s a little hard for me to be objective about what you’re asking because of who I am, but in general I do agree with aspects of it.” Ben pondered his response for a second. “It’s like a range. The Commonwealth is range control, the safety officer, and the trainers. They provide the left and right limits, correct, or punish anyone if they do anything wrong. The corporations are the soldiers on the firing line. They know their limits and need to act within them to meet whatever the objective is; whether that’s an individual systems educational curriculum, or trade routes.”

“Thanks for dumbing it down for us stupid grunts,” Jacobi glared and started to stomp off.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way,” Ben hurried after her, and his long legs allowed him to get in front of her quickly. “I just thought it was a good analogy.”

“An analogy that completely sidesteps the growing corporate influence on our government; influence that will only grow if an Eagle prime minister gets into power.” Jacobi stopped when Ben’s hand touched her shoulder.

“We’re completely in agreement there.” Ben nodded, while Jacobi looked a little surprised at the admission. “I’ve seen those high-level good old boys and girls rub each other’s backs for favors, promises, and to get ahead. Hell, I had an old girlfriend do it to me.” Ben cringed a little bit when Sarah came to mind. “But it comes down to a simple risk assessment for me. We’re in the middle of a war on two, hell, maybe even three fronts. We’ve got the ongoing feud with the Blockies, the Windsors bashing in our back door, and now we’ve got aliens whose intentions we don’t know. Carol seems fine enough, but you heard her, they aren’t trading with the Windsors, so who is?” Ben knew he’d scored a few points when Jacobi looked thoughtful. “So, my risk assessment tells me I’d like someone like Admiral Simons in charge of this instead of Mackintosh, who’s never worn a uniform or served on anything except a corporate board of directors.

“You do know that Deja Simons was an Infantry Admiral not Fleet?” A smile pulled a Jacobi’s lips, and that made Ben grin back. “Unlike some Fleet officers, I’m fond of a few infantry grunts.”

“Oh…really…” Jacobi chuckled and threw her hands around the back of Ben’s neck. At 178 centimeters, she was tall for a woman, but she still had to crane her neck up so Ben could lean down and kiss her.

“You know I was talking about Sergeant Cooper…right.”

“Asshole,” Jacobi slapped him in the chest but smiled.

Ben pretended it hurt, before his hand found hers, and they continued walking toward the voting center. What had just occurred was the mark of a healthy relationship in Ben’s opinion. People could have different worldviews, different beliefs, sometimes even radically so; but what really mattered was how those arguments ended. Not in screaming and punches, but in laughter and kindness.

“At least we’re not Blockies,” Jacobi added as they climbed the steps. This voting center was located at some type of local theater. “If we were we’d all have to toe the party line or be labeled as undesirables.”

Ben couldn’t agree more as he held up his GIC to be scanned at the reception booth. Ben’s GIC matched with a registered voter in the Commonwealth’s database, so he was allowed to pass. He gave a small nod to the two soldiers flanking the entrance in Dragonscale armor before heading inside.

Unlike younger members of the military, Ben had met the minimum obligation in an approved suffrage service, and earned the privilege of voting in Commonwealth-level elections. He waited in line for a few minutes before he was waved forward and into one of the privacy booths. It was very similar to testing cubes used throughout the Commonwealth, just not as intrusive. He had to crouch down a little to enter the booth, but it opened to allow him to pass instead of him having at wiggle through it. When he emerged on the other side it was brightly lit and almost homey.

“Welcome to the 2433 Commonwealth Election!” A cheery female voice announced. “Please scan your GIC on the device at the center of the room, and confirm your information. If the information is incorrect in any way, please notify an election official.”

Ben scanned his GIC and took a seat in the comfortable chair at the center of the booth. He dutifully studied his information as it sprang to life in the air in front of him.

 

Name: Benjamin Gold

Genetic Identification Code: NY0511240650671

Physical Health: Superior

Mental Health: [Authorized Personnel Only]

Education: Doctorate in Intergalactic Relations from Oxford University

Occupation: Lieutenant Commander, United Commonwealth of Colonies Fleet

Criminal History: N/A

Citizen Status: Confirmed

Voting Status: Eligible

 

Ben was glad to see that his education and occupation had updated. The last thing he wanted to do today was have to sit with election officials for hours while they figured out how to update his information in the voter registration system.

“The information is correct.” Ben’s voice command caused a green light to blink, and then the information disappeared. What appeared in its place was his first voting option.

Due to the expansive nature of the Commonwealth election day, it could take up anywhere from twenty minutes to a few hours of a voter’s time, which was why the voting booths were so accommodating. Ben’s registration had him as a citizen of Aurum, the corporate homeworld of Gold Technologies. It didn’t matter that he’d been born, and lived most of his life on Earth, Ben’s father made sure each of his children were registered as a citizen of Aurum for legal reasons. In fact, Ben believed they held foreign dignitary status as representatives of Aurum, but that was true of most majority shareholders from corporate worlds. Thus, the first round of voting considerations was for local Aurum proposals and candidates in the city he was registered in: Dinas Aur. Ben didn’t know the people, so he watched short holos of their platforms before making a decision. He also read the ordinance proposals carefully before voting yes or no.

Uneducated voting was a downfall of pre-expansion societies, and as someone who’d studied these things very carefully, Ben was doing his part not to repeat the mistakes of the past. After he’d gone through all of Dinas Aur’s voting subjects he moved on to Aurum’s candidates and proposals. Because he’d had a healthy conversation with Jacobi, he watched the platform videos, and archived campaign footage, on the candidates to represent Aurum on the Council of Representatives. Aurum had five seats, and ten real total candidates, five from each major party. Ben didn’t pay much attention to the minor party candidates. After listening to what the politicians had to say, Ben went four for five on Eagle Party candidates. The last candidate he voted Progressive because of the guy’s view on the New Lancashire incident. The fact that he didn’t call it a debacle, like the Eagle Party candidate, won the guy Ben’s vote. Lastly, were Commonwealth level initiatives.

The Prime Minister of the Commonwealth was not elected directly by the people. They were elected by the majority party, or a coalition of parties in the Council of Representatives. In-depth research by the Commonwealth founders had chosen this system over the American Presidential System. That meant, Ezekiel Mackintosh’s reelection or Admiral Simons’ election would be up to the Council when it gathered after the election results were tallied in several months.

In total, it took Ben about an hour to vote, and when he was done, he still had to wait another twenty minutes for Jacobi.  Since she was from East Newfoundland, he had no idea what proposals that system had put to the voters, and she didn’t really want to discuss it when she emerged. Not because she wanted to hide anything, but because they had more important things to consider.

“That was the easy part of the night.” Ben held out his arm and she took it.

Considering they’d just voted on items whose ramifications would ripple across the Commonwealth for the better part of a decade, told you just how hard a dinner with Thomas Gold was going to be.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 200

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

From the looks Coop saw on the rest of his team’s faces, he wasn’t sure anyone had asked Carol, or Bob, about how the Windsors were getting their new weapons. Even RADM Stillwater looked a little surprised, but Coop refused to believe no one had posed the question. If a lowly SGT was the first to bring this up, then the Commonwealth was royally fucked.

“Keep up the insight, Cooper.” The SGM cut off any further questions Coop might have. “Right now I want the teams together and assigning responsibilities. Our training schedule outlines today as a more of a meet and greet, and getting settled. The real training starts tomorrow.”

Coop wasn’t sure how he was going to like the ‘real’ training, but he didn’t get a chance to ponder the ways the SGM could make his life suck. There were things in the here and now that could accomplish that.

“Berg, Cooper, on me.” GYSGT Cunningham snapped, and then chuckled. “I didn’t think I’d ever be saying that again.”

Coop obediently trotted over to the GYSGT and Eve. As far as meet and greets went, his was going much worse than Bravo Team. Coop heard SSG Hightower introducing himself and learning a little bit about SGT Sullivan. LT Wentworth mostly stayed in the background and let the NCO handle everything, but gave and received information willingly, and even laughed once. Eve just sat there and glared at him. It was so much different than the last time he’d been with her.

She’d said she’d catch him later, and he responded with something suave and debonair about it not coming soon enough. Then she’d told him not to get killed, and he told her the next time they met up they’d fuck like bunnies, but now that they were here, it looked like her glare would turn his nuts to stone like she was space Medusa.

“So…I didn’t die.” Coop put on his best grin and held his arms out wide while trying to look innocent.

“Congratulations for meeting the bare minimum qualifications for existence,” Eve shot back.

“I did lose my leg to a grav-grenade though. That sucked donkey dick.” Coop dropped his arms and gave a genuine shrug.

That seemed to thaw Eve a few degrees. “That does suck. I took a round in the leg not long ago. Rehab made me think it would have been better off if they killed me.”

“I know…right,” Coop replied while trying to act nonchalant. “The thing I really remember was the Jell-O. It was awe…”

“It sucked; tasted like ass,” she cut him off.

“Yeah…it was awful. That was totally what I was going to say.” Coop tried to pass it off, but he’d loved their cherry flavor, and his face just couldn’t hide it.

“Wow.” The GYSGT sat back to watch the show, but she couldn’t stay quiet that much longer. “How long were the two of you fucking?”

“A weekend,” Coop answered.

“None of your business.” Eve spat, and then glared when Coop’s reply registered.

“Do I need to separate you onto different teams, or can we play nice?” The GYSGT wasn’t kidding now.

This time, Coop and Eve were on the same page. “We’re good.”

“Good.” She gave the two of them a stern glare, before turning to Coop. “I’m pretty familiar with Berg’s record over the last year. Fill me in on yours. I could read it all in the reports, but I find it’s always better to get a first person account.”

“Sure, Gunney. Not too much really now that I think about it. I played riot cop down on Earth when Chicago decided to trash itself. I got to go in with some marines as their HI when some miners took control of a station. I saved the Lieutenant Commander’s ass over there when the miners took him hostage, but that’s where I lost my leg.” Coop gestured over his shoulder at Gold. “Then I did some anti-piracy ops and took back some Commonwealth property that had been requisitioned. Last, but certainly not least because it’s the reason I’m here, I got to be a human punching bag for Windsor’s mechs when they invaded New Lancashire. We barely got out of that one alive. The Lieutenant Commander saved our ass that time.” Coop finished up his spiel and turned to Eve. “What have you been up to?” For some reason, he thought she might be mildly impressed by his action-packed time in the HI.

“I was in Ranger school for most of it, but then I went in and saved the Gunney’s ass…no offense.” She turned to their team leader.

“No offense taken.” Cunningham shrugged. “My ass was cooked well done when you showed up.”

“After the Rogue Island op we both took part in one of the biggest Commonwealth offenses in the last few decades. I got to hit both space and planetary targets. One was a boarding action and the other was a covert insertion, which is probably why I’m here aside from being Splitstream rated.”

“Cool,” Coop replied casually. He wasn’t keeping score or anything, but he counted himself as having four major ops to Eve’s two.

“Don’t forget that bronze star for valor for saving Sergeant Sullivan’s life, or that you were the one who came up with the bright idea that allowed us to take that launcher in the first place.” The GYSGT clearly had Eve’s back, because that award made Coop’s little MSM look like a pat on the back for a job adequately done.

It was good that Coop was speechless, because the SGM was heading their way. If they were measuring dicks right now, Eve’s was bigger.

“How are things looking Gunney?” The SGM stopped to look at Coop – not Eve or Cunningham – just Coop.

“Cooper and Berg were actually in the same Basic class, and even in the same squad, so there is just some catching up to do. Cooper isn’t a total fuck up, so we can work with him,” she deadpanned.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Gunney.” Coop couldn’t stop the retort before it left his lips.

“Don’t mention it, Cooper,” Cunningham didn’t miss a beat.

“What are their assignments?” The SGM acted like the little exchange didn’t even happen.

“I’m going to put Cooper in an A and Berg in a B. I’ll take operational unless you want it, and primary commo, Berg will be primary medical and liaison with locals, and Cooper will fill secondary assignments with the primary responsibility of sustainment.”

Coop liked the lack of responsibility in being back up, but ‘sustainment’ sounded boring. Of course, Cunningham and the SGM didn’t care what Coop wanted.

“Good. Let’s get them briefed and fitted.” The SGM turned to head over and check on Bravo.

The GYSGT turned back to them. “What this means for you two is refresher classes in first aide, TACCOM standards, and making sure we load translator and customs software into your LACS. Cooper, you’re going to go through everything since you’re our universal fallback and I don’t know what training standards you’ve been held to here, but my guess is not tier one.”

Suddenly, being the backup included a lot more work, but that wasn’t what Coop dialed into during the GYSGT’s assignments. “We’re getting new LACS?” He asked.

“We’re being issued updated equipment to meet the needs of our team,” the GYSGT replied diplomatically, but Coop’s take away was, ‘cool new stuff’, and they didn’t have to wait long.

A few moments later Carol reappeared with two hovering platforms following her. Coop couldn’t stop grinning as the SGM called everyone over. He practically skipped over so he could be in the front row for the briefing. Coop was never a first row kind of student, only when it involved blowing shit up did he really get interested. That, or sex ed.

“Good Afternoon, soldiers.” Carol’s translator sounded politely uninterested.

“Everyone listen up,” the SGM talked right over the Twig. “The wrench turners are going to give you a once over of the new LACS V4A and V4B. They’ll tell you things that have changed, the things that have been upgraded, and the things that are staying the same. Carol has been nice enough to go over those upgrades in more detail, so listen closely. Take it away.” The SGM gestured to an engineer who still looked a little irritated at being called a wrench turner, but he got to work.

To anyone looking, the V4A and V4B looked different. The V4A was noticeably bigger, pushing three and a half meters. It was also thicker. The arms and legs were much thicker than on a normal human, but to Coop that meant they’d packed more shit into it. <The more the better.>

The engineer started with the things that were staying the same. The interior was still the malleable carbon-tubing weave with all the sensors and circuitry that allowed the armor to emphasize the pilot’s movements and make them exponentially more powerful. Above that was still a reflective coated duro-steel to stop energy weapons, and the ballistic gel to reduce blunt force trauma and protect the integrity of the reflective duro-steel. The exterior was still the carbon nano-tubing in the dragonscale pattern with a swarming coating of nanites to react to specialized munitions, reinforce damaged sections, and provide camouflage. Coop wasn’t used to the camouflage feature from the V3s, but he was sure he would enjoy it. He was also sure he’d enjoy that they’d thickened the armor from six centimeters to eight centimeters.

The specks were true for both the V4A and V4B, but the exteriors were clearly meant to be used differently. The V4A had the telltale sign of many internal compartments meant for carrying ammo, batteries, or snacks depending on the trooper inside it. Across the breast of the V4A, and not the V4B, was a horizontal bar, which reminded Coop of what they used to censor a woman’s tits on the no-fun holo-channels. Also, the V4A had what looked like a big carapace covering a portion of its back, which gave it a vague turtle-like appearance. Coop could think of several reasons how that could be useful or a complete pain in the ass.

“The V4A’s are designed to be the pack mules of the team. The circular storage container on the back, surrounding the 250mm, modular artillery tube, is designed to transport anything the SRRT team needs to complete their mission.”

“Excuse me,” Coop couldn’t help but interrupt the man. “What do you mean by modular?”

“The V4As were the next SPECOPS LACS about to be put into circulation, but were pulled and designated for the SRRT project. Since the missions SRRTs conducts will not always be frontline combat operations like HI, the SPECOPS community wanted more flexibility in their weaponry. What we came up with was a removable artillery mount where the space could be utilized for a number of other things depending on the mission.”

A LACS without an artillery weapon was blasphemy to an HI trooper like Coop, and he would have let the engineer know that if the GYSGT hadn’t grabbed him tightly where his shoulder met his neck. “We’ll talk offline about this, Cooper,” she stated with a squeeze that made his fingers go numb, but it got him to shut up, and allowed the engineer to continue.

“The big upgrade, aside from the modular nature of the space, is this,” the horizontal bar on the breast was pointed out. “We received the first batch of shields from Carol and attached them into the armor. We weren’t able to incorporate them into the internal design, since the armor was already manufactured, but it meets safety standards. You’ll be able to activate and deactivate your shield from the HUD where we’ve created a specific shield menu to select. You’ll also be able to pre-program scenarios when you would like the shield to automatically activate.”

The rest of the V4A’s weapons were more or less what the old V2 and V3s were equipped with. It still had the two shoulder-mounted weapons, but because of the V4s increased size they were retractable now thanks to some ingenious folding design. The launcher held twelve high-velocity missiles, and the railgun came with 30000 rounds that could be used for air and missile defense, or against enemy infantry and armor. The 250mm spine-mounted artillery tube had a seventy-shell magazine, which was a hell of a lot more than Coop was used to on the V2, but was only a slight upgrade from a V3. None of that was a huge surprise, but then the engineers showed off the blades.

“Due to the new nature of threats you’re likely to come into contact with, the design of the V4s was modified to include complete nano-blades, not just the edges. This will allow the soldiers to make full use of the blades’ many functions instead of being pigeonholed into one method.”

Coop liked the sound of that, and he couldn’t wait to test it out. When all was explained, and Coop was allowed to approach and take a closer look at what he’d be wearing, he was impressed. He doubted he’d ever utilize the modular nature of the artillery tube, but he could see why someone might want the option. He just hoped it didn’t ruin the integrity of an HI trooper’s primary weapons system.

<You’re not an HI trooper.> He had to remind himself. <You’re going to be sliced, diced, and reassembled. You’re a modular trooper now.> The thought was grim, but it made him chuckle.

That got everyone looking at him, and Eve shaking her head. <Yep…this is going to be just like old times.> He returned to his seat and waited for the briefing to continue.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 199

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

<Piercing, light blue eyes…high cheekbones…blonde pixie cut…a permanently fierce expression that I know fits her personality…and the body of a warrior goddess.> Coop shifted his gaze. <Dark brown eyes with a mischievous twinkle…exotic…a total flirt…with a small, slender body, but damn if she can’t put her feet behind her head when it counts.> 

Coop’s eyes flashed back and forth between the most prominent women in his recent past. Recent for Aiko meaning she had her limbs wrapped around him less than a day ago. Eve had been away longer, but that only made her more attractive. She was the fruit once tasted but then taken out of reach. Despite the passage of time, Coop distantly remembered destroying a hotel room with her. He’d been between those powerful thighs before. One time, she’d even choked him out with them.

The two women were opposites physically, mentally, and just about everything else ending in an ly. Aiko came from a disadvantaged place by being mix raced. She’d survived an abusive, controlling marriage to end up as a wrench turner in the Fleet. She learned how to fend for herself, and embraced a more unconventional way of life. They’d done business and pleasure together, and he’d thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eve was the ice to Aiko’s fire. She was a valkyrie born to a military family. The youngest of her siblings, she was emotionally neglected due to her father dying in battle. Her mother had no time for her as she climbed the ladder to full admiral. Eve strived to succeed at everything she did, and as far as Coop could tell, she’d been successful. She was just as likely to chew him out as make out with him, but there had been a connection between them when they finally hooked up at the end of Basic. Maybe it was their time training together that formed a bond, or them testing out their new, enhanced bodies, but his weekend hotel-destruction was still at the top of his five all-time sexual experiences. Aiko just occupied the other four.

“Sergeant?”

Coop flashed back to that motel room with her riding him like a bucking bronco, and then it flashed to the motel here on New Savannah where Aiko was doing something that Coop didn’t even know if it had a name.

“Sergeant?…SERGEANT!”

Coop snapped out of it as SSG Hightower smacked him hard on the back of the head. Everyone was looking at him. The LT was scowling at him, Aiko looked like she wanted to roast his dick over a bonfire, and Eve looked like she’d just chewed up nails into shrapnel and was going to hose him down with them.

“Oh me?” Coop tried to play dumb. “Just made sergeant yesterday, so I’m not really used to being called it, so just call me Coop.”

“I’ll call you, sergeant, because that’s what you are, so start acting like it.” The speaker was a big guy with SGM chevrons and rockers on his uniform.

<Way to make a first impression.> Coop had successfully fucked that up, and he knew he’d be working to get out of the dog house with at least three people now.

“As I was saying,” the SGM continued. “I am Sergeant Major Queen. I’ll be the operations NCOIC and field leader of the SRRT. With me is Gunnery Sergeant Cunningham, my number two and Alpha team leader. Staff Sergeant Hightower will be the Bravo team leader.” The SGM nodded to the SSG, who simply nodded back. “I’ve also brought a couple of kick ass Rangers with me, straight from hell. This is Sergeant Berg and Sergeant Sullivan. They’ll be assisting with training and split between the two teams, which are as follows: Alpha Team is under the Gunney’s preview, and will be Sergeant Berg and Sergeant Cooper. I’ll usually attach myself to Alpha Team, but I like to move freely when on an op. Bravo Team is Staff Sergeant Hightower, Sergeant Enders, Sergeant Sullivan, and will have our OIC, Lieutenant Wentworth attached to it. Ma’am.”

The LT stepped forward and looked at the eight members of the action portion of the SRRT. “I won’t bullshit you and say that I’m trained and qualified for this. I’m not. I just happen to be Slipstream rated along with the rest of you. What I do have is experience fighting the enemy we will be fighting, and I’ve worked with half of you. The Sergeant Major is the lead when we’re in the field. He’s got the training, and I want the rest of us to listen to the Rangers the Sergeant Major brought with him. We have a lot to learn, but the Rangers should also listen to my HI troopers. We’ve fought the enemy before, you haven’t, and they are unlike any enemy you’ve ever faced. With our two groups meshing, I know we can accomplish the mission.”

<I know who I’d like to become one with.> Coop’s eyes shifted, and they were immediately met by Berg’s. <Oh no…it’s like Basic all over again.> She seemed to have his thoughts dialed in, so he just gave her a weak smile.

In return, she scowled and executed a rude finger gesture that no one else spotted. Or they did, and everyone thought he deserved it. He gave that a second thought as the LT stepped back and SGM took control. “Lieutenant Commander Gold and Petty Officer Lee will handle our ride.” The SGM patted the gunboat, and immediately got yelled at by the engineers, but one look from the SGM had them shutting up and averting their eyes.

“Our mission parameters are simple. We are a covert force that I am going to train to be tier one, on par with any Ranger, SEAL, SAS, or Recon team out there. Our missions will be sabotage, covert insertion, reconnaissance, and target elimination if we’re given the green light.” The SGM’s eyes scanned his new SRRT to see their reactions.

“That means assassination,” Mike whispered.

“I knew that.” Coop elbowed Mike in the ribs in response.

“Do you have a problem with that, Sergeant Cooper?” The SGM zeroed in on him…again.

“No Sergeant Major, just point me in the direction you want and tell me who to kill,” Coop replied confidently.

“I shouldn’t be telling you to kill anyone, Cooper.” Instead of getting loud, like a drill sergeant, the SGM’s voice grew low and serious. “I expect individual initiative and problem solving skills on the part of my team members. If we’re reconing an objective, it’s going to be against enemy VIPs with top-of-the-line security. I expect you to not throw an entire system’s government into chaos when we don’t need it, and I expect you to take a shot if you deem in necessary. You aren’t just one of many HI troopers now.” The SGM swept the crowd again, but Coop felt like he was still talking to him. “You are an action arm of the Commonwealth. Your decisions will have ramifications for billions of people. It is never to be taken lightly.” He frowned at Coop. “If I had my way you’d still be a PFC and wouldn’t even be here, but we have limited resources on this, and I have my orders.”

<I was a corporal,> Coop almost corrected him, but upon further consideration, kept his mouth shut.

Coop looked over and saw Eve smiling at the SGM’s comments, but then she spotted him looking, and that smile became twin blue daggers aimed at castrating him.

“What we might lack in experience, we make up for in technology,” the SGM continued. “Our liaison, Carol, will be instructing us on the uses and limitations of the new tech as we train. She’s also been compensated to give us as much intelligence as possible on what we might come up against, so we can plan for all contingencies.”

A light went off in Coop’s head. He was sure people had thought about it already, but no one had told him anything about what was going on outside New Savannah recently, so he slowly raised his hand. The SGM was going over a few more administrative issues when he noticed Coop’s half-raised appendage.

“This isn’t daycare, Cooper. If you have a question for the benefit of the group, ask it.” He folded his arms across his chest and looked at Coop expectantly.

“Thanks, Sergeant Major. Well…I’m sure someone has covered this with Carol already, but I got a pretty good look at some of the Windsor’s’ tech when they were trying to kill me, and it looked a lot like the tech we saw demoed by Bob with Rear Admiral Nelson. I don’t know if the royals figured out the advancements on their own, but I think it would be tough for them to get a few hundred years more advanced than the rest of us. So, my question, which is as much for you, Sergeant Major, as it is for Carol, is why doesn’t your species stop selling to the Windsors and start selling exclusively to us? I think the Commonwealth can buy a whole lot more shi…stuff than the Kingdom of Windsor.”

Carol was across the room, but even without ears, she somehow picked up that Coop was talking about her. She started hovering over, but the SGM had a question first.

“Can you give me examples, Cooper?” Since meeting the big NCO, Coop got the impression the guy wasn’t upset, pissed, or annoyed by Coop talking.

“The biggest one that pops to mind is the shields.” Coop had a brief flashback of the Windsor’s drop ships cutting through New Lancashire’s defenses like they weren’t even there, and the mechs walking through a barrage of artillery that could have stopped an entire infantry brigade. “I was on the receiving end of the shield test in New Lancashire, and I saw a distinct way the shield reacted to being hit, and that reaction was mirrored in what I saw against the enemy. That being said, I don’t know if all shields react the same way when hit by plasma-tipped rounds. I’m not a physicist or engineer, but I think it’s worth asking.” Coop’s looked at Eve in his peripherals, and she looked thoughtful instead of pissed. Aiko had nearly an identical expression.

“That’s a valid point, Cooper.” The SGM nodded in approval, just as Carol arrived.

“I detected that my presence was required.” Carol’s own environmental shield flared as she came to a halt.

The SGM gave Coop a pointed look that said, ‘this is your question, so ask it.’

“Hello, Carol.” Coop decided that being polite to the large alien was always the best course of action, especially if she was going to be a technical advisor with a bunch of untested tech.

“Hello, Sergeant Cooper,” the ET replied in the monotone of her translating device.

“I was just wondering if your species has considered suspending trade with the Kingdom of Windsor because we’re in an active state of war with them, and since we’re the bigger starfaring nation, we’re going to be the better customer in the long run?”

“I am unaware of any trade contacts between my race and the polity you call the Star Kingdom of Windsor.” Carol replied flatly. “However, pursuant to Clause D of the Compact of the Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings, I cannot speak on behalf of the other member races.”

Coop had heard that before, and it sent a chill down his spine equal to when Eve looked like she wanted to castrate him. Like any normal person, he didn’t like something he couldn’t control, and he disliked it even more when he couldn’t control something he didn’t know existed.

“Thanks, Carol,” Coop sighed.

“You’re welcome, Sergeant Cooper.” It was clear from the Twig’s response that she didn’t understand the nuances of human emotion just yet.

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