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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Two Worlds – Chapter 227

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop took a deep breath and focused. His heart thudded rhythmically in his chest as he let his mind’s eye narrow so the entire universe was contained within the confines of his scope. He tried to let his thoughts flow freely and not focus on anything. He wanted to simply be in the moment, as stupid as that sounded, but that was what Eve advised was required for a good sniper. Coop would never be a great sniper, he knew that, and their last training exercise had clearly demonstrated that.

Coop did not have the patience for that type of work. He’d approached the target area from several different angles and each time the spotters had located him. Meanwhile, the rest of the team had taken their shots and only Sullivan and SSG Hightower were spotted. Sullivan got ribbed by the rest of his Ranger buddies, but he didn’t bitch as he jogged back to the LOD to start the stalk again. He passed on try number two, as did the SSG. Coop failed during times two and three. Four was his lucky number, and even then, he wasn’t sure if the spotters were just letting him slide by because they’d been out all night and wanted to go back to base. He could feel their pity when he marched back into the camp they were packing up.

<Fuck them.> He didn’t want to show them he gave two shits about what they thought, but he didn’t think they bought it. Deep down, he was pissed.

It wasn’t necessarily the sniper thing. Stalking clearly wasn’t his thing, and he could live with that, but on tries two and three he’d totally missed the target; one from nineteen hundred and twenty meters and the other from a paltry eighteen-ten. Try number four had been a success from eighteen-twenty five, but only because he’d been able to identify his weakness: dealing with vertical change.

Coop no longer believed that being a sniper was easy, and the Rangers were just blowing smoke up his ass. He knew there was science and art behind the lethal skill, and it was a skill he was trying to get better on. In his free time he’d started hitting the ranges. Sometimes Eve would join him, but today he was alone and trying to remedy his weakness.

He started with close-up targets to build confidence. He hit fourteen hundred and fifteen hundred meters dead center with elevation changes each time. The range was designed to throw all different scenarios at the shooters, and although frustrating, Coop knew the variables were making him a better shooter.

As he sighted in on the two thousand meter target he went through his mantra of the fundamentals, <check the externals, proper position, good trigger control, proper breathing.> The ranges externals were more controlled, but there was some wind to deal with, and his Truthfinder helped gauge how multiple terrain features along the bullets projected flight path would affect the shot.

His position was good, he’d been working on his trigger pull, and he felt his breathing was getting better. He didn’t know if the IOR’s integration with his brain was making it easier to focus and avoid distractions, but Coop felt like he was able to achieve a Zen-like focus quicker than ever before. Since he’d never achieved a Zen-like state, except maybe mid-orgasm, he didn’t have a good benchmark to work off of, but it sure felt like he was getting better.

His IOR displayed the Truthfinder’s readings so he never had to take his eye off the target: a holographic representation of a Blockie soldier standing guard by a gate. The simulation could make the guard march around and act more like a human being, but Coop was taking baby steps, and the guard remained static.

Coop waited for his breathing to hit the right point and gently squeezed the trigger; not pull. The soft recoil caught him by surprise, but then his eyes automatically went back down range. The Blockie holo was on the ground. Coop quickly replayed the shot recorded by his Truthfinder over his IOR. He slowed it down and watched the round come in frame by frame. When the round hit the Blockie hologram, it pulverized the electronic soldier’s hip flexor. While the wound was incredibly painful, and maybe mortal, it was off target.

<Shit.> Coop sighed and put his head down on his forearm. Even though his eyes were closed and buried in his arm, his IOR still relayed the information behind his eyelids, and he watched the hit twice more. <Well at least I hit him.> Coop looked for the silver lining. It was the longest shot he’d been able to hit anything at before.

With the M3 back at basic the standard weapon’s qualification had soldiers going out to one thousand meters. Only the best shooters could hit the targets with the rudimentary M3 at that distance. That’s why they got the Expert Badge. Coop thought he’d been one of those shooters, and he’d finally earned an Expert Badge, but now that he’d taken two kilometer shots, it felt like every meter over the one kilometer mark was a struggle. Eve had scored her kill at the training event from twenty-two hundred meters, and it had been a head shot. That’s why he’d gone to her for advice, and that’s why he’d been able to hit the guy at…he hit the range finder again…<Two thousand eight meters.> He mentally recorded his new personal best. <A hit is a hit.> He was focused on confidence building and didn’t need the lecture that the enemy rarely allowed you to easily kill them, but that was why he was taking baby steps.

He reset the simulation by hitting a few buttons on the terminal next to him. The range was not integrated with the IOR, so he had to break his firing position to go again. Then he settled back down for the task of getting back on target. The externals changed, the Blockie guard was in a different place, and the elevation was slightly different. The range finder came back with a two thousand one meter distance. It wasn’t a personal best, but Coop focused on taking a better shot.

Five minutes of prep later he was ready to make the shot. He controlled his breathing, slowly began to squeeze the trigger, and…

{PRIORITY MESSAGE… ORDERS ATTACHED… ALL SPLITSTREAM RAPID RESPONSE TEAM TWO PERSONNEL REPORT TO CONFERENCE ROOM D IMMEDIATLY FOR BRIEFING.} Flashed across his vision a split-second before the round left the chamber.

“Son of a bitch!” Coop cursed. His round was off target by a good six meters.  He took a moment to seethe before acknowledging the read receipt for the message and packing up his kit. He’d need to stow the rifle in his locker before he went to the conference room.

His IOR popped up with the quickest path to get to where he was going and an estimated time based on his routine walking pace. The time adjusted up and down depending on Coop’s speed. Coop grimaced at the information and swiped it away with his eyes. He didn’t need every facet of his life marginalized and micro-analyzed by a poop-nugget in his brain. The IOR was great for some things and incredibly frustrating in others. He could just imagine a mid-sex countdown clock to ejaculation popping up in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable activity.

<No thanks.> Coop made sure he adjusted the sensitivity settings of the biological software to its lowest setting before heading out.

It took him about twenty minutes to jog back from the range, secure his gear, and make it to the conference room in the administrative building at the center of the base. He opened up the orders before he arrived to scan them so he didn’t go into the brief blind.

“Thanks for joining us, Cooper. Take a seat.” The SGM was leading the briefing because all the officers were off on another mission. It didn’t seem like a dig at Coop. While on duty, the SGM’s IOR had some command authorizations. One of those was that he knew where his people were at all times, so he knew Coop was at the range practicing.

“Now that we’re all here let’s get started.” A star chart appeared at the center of the table. One point lit up that was quickly recognizable as New Savannah. Then the map zoomed out, and a second point was highlighted.

Coop looked at the star chart’s legend to make sure his IOR wasn’t malfunctioning.

“This is the Hegemony system identified in your orders as The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude; or at least that’s the human translation.” He held up a hand as Coop opened his mouth to ask a question. “Hold your questions until the end. We have been ordered to rendezvous with a delegation from New Washington at Thurgood Station in the Rim before heading out on a diplomatic mission to the Golden City. Apparently, the ETs auditing the Commonwealth are finished and we’re being welcomed into the Hegemony.”

<Or something like that.> Coop had known the SGM long enough to know the expression on his face said he thought this was a questionable mission at best.

“Minister of Commerce Harrington will be leading the small delegation and we will be pulling security. Each team will handle a different element of our security plan. Gunney, you and Alpha will handle far security, and Bravo will handle close. I will be attached to Alpha, and Lieutenant Wentworth will be with Bravo to interface with the Minister. Packets are going out to you now with more details. We’ll run through some simulation training over the next week before departure.  Argo will be back by then, and she’ll be our ride. Questions?”

Coop’s hand shot into the air. “What kind of name is The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude; especially that last bit? It’s a little foreboding if you ask me.”

Most people rolled their eyes, but a newly recovered Mike, still on light duty, nodded his agreement.

“I don’t make the names and this Hegemony has been around for tens of thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands, so don’t go pissing them off. You understand, Sergeant?”

“Yes, Sergeant Major. Don’t piss off the ETs. Roger that.”

 

***

 

Hailey Armstrong

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

Hailey posted up outside the door of the residential home. It was nice, in an upper-middle class neighborhood, and looked like a mid-level executive should live there. That wasn’t what her intel indicated. This place was a cook house that was hiding in plain sight.

She’d gotten the intel from a police officer they had on the payroll. Hailey had turned the man first by fucking him and making sure it was all recorded and ready to go to his wife. His wife came from money, so if she found out about his bi-weekly affairs he’d be shit out of luck. The blackmail was the stick, and the payroll was the carrot. They kept him well paid to the point they didn’t need to blackmail him, and like a good little doggie he’d relayed the intel so PFH could get there before the fuzz.

Hailey’s team was the same team she’d used to grab the two arms dealers a few weeks ago. She’d put them together from approved available personnel, and they’d gelled well over the past several months, so going into the house was a well-rehearsed maneuver.

The bumper defeated the lock’s software and the lead man threw the door open and burst inside. They quickly swept their assigned sectors of fire based on the plans grabbed from planetary records, and proceeded to repeat the same tactic throughout the house. The only problem was they didn’t find anything.

“Clear.” Her team relaxed a fraction and waited for her to make the call. She was easily the youngest among them, but she was the PFH Asset Protection agent. They were freelancers hired by the organization, maybe even aspiring to join it, but the chain of command was clear. The buck stopped with her.

Hailey scanned the large, main room and took a deep breath. Parts of her enhancements were stimulated senses. Not too much, because that would drive her insane, but enough to pick up what normal people wouldn’t. She took several deep breaths as she walked and detected a faint hint of chemicals. It could be cleaning products, but the room was basically deserted with a thin layer of dust covering everything. She surveyed several rooms, but the smell was the strongest in the main room.

She was so concentrated on smelling that she nearly missed the slight squeak. She back tracked a few steps and applied more pressure. The squeak was more pronounced, but the floor looked just like it did anywhere else, so Hailey reached into her tactical vest a pulled out a small vile. She poured the specifically programmed nanites onto the ground and waited. They were like grains of sand moving around until the scene started to take shape.

Nanites were a great way to hide stuff. They would fill in cracks, hide creases, and make it appear that something like a door wasn’t there. The nanites Hailey dropped were programmed to search and destroy other nanites within a two-meter radius, and as they got to work it was clear someone was trying to hide a trapdoor to a basement.

Within a minute it was clear, and Hailey’s teammate put a bumper on the lock. A few seconds after that there was a sizzling as the lock was overpowered by the powerful bumper, and the door popped open. The same teammate grabbed the handle and opened it a fraction so Hailey could toss a flash bang grenade down there. She didn’t know what was waiting for them, and she wasn’t going to take any chances.

The ground rumbled beneath them as the shockwaves from the grenade expanded, and a heartbeat after that Hailey jumped down through the trapdoor. The fall was a little farther than expected, but her enhancements allowed her to handle it.

<Damn,> was her first thought as a full-on lab came into view. She’d expected a few idiots cooking up some synthetics with a third-grade chemistry set. The result would be lots of overdoses, more attention from law enforcement, and a decrease in customers. That was something PFH couldn’t allow on top of people cutting in on their market share.

She swept the space quickly and identified two men. One was in a lab coat with protective gear, obviously the cook, and the other was reaching for… Hailey didn’t care what he was going for. She put a round from her silence pistol through his forehead and he dropped like a stone. The cook didn’t even register that his bodyguard/friend/whoever was dead before Hailey was throwing him to the ground.

“Sweep the room,” she commanded. “Test the product.” If it was quality or novel they would take the cook back with them to answer to the Boss. If not they’d kill the cook, torch his supply, and blame it all on a careless man trying to play with forces outside his control. Plenty of idiots died trying to synthesize good drugs. The cops wouldn’t look any deeper into it.

The cook shook his head, opened his mouth angrily to protest his handling, and then froze when he saw the barrel of Hailey’s weapon a few centimeters from his eye. She didn’t have to say anything. He quietly complied.

“This is good shit,” one of her team replied gruffly as the tester he’d brought lit up green like a Christmas tree.

Hailey looked at the results and then back down at the cook. “You’re coming with us.” The cook didn’t argue. He knew he didn’t have a say in how this played out, so he didn’t even think of lying when Hailey hesitated, took out her PAD, and showed him a picture. “Have you seen this guy?”

The cook was even more surprised he had. “Yes. One of my people sells to him every other day at a motel on the outskirts of the East Side. I can give you the data if you’re lenient.”

“That’s not my call,” Hailey replied, but then hesitated. “I’ll put in a good word though.”

The cook nodded and transmitted the data under close surveillance. Any shenanigans and he’d end up like his friend. Hailey looked down at the smug face of Noah Grisham and silently seethed for a moment. She wanted the guy dead for the way he’d demeaned her, but she couldn’t touch him at the moment.

<Thankfully, I know someone who’ll do the work for me.> When she’d finished with the cook, she’d call the number Coop gave her and set another meeting.

Sometimes it was good to have friends with military-grade enhancements, training, and a desire to get their hands dirty.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 224

Benjamin Gold

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

 

As the van drove away, Ben was glad he wasn’t in it. Being the highest ranking officer in the SRRT he was part of all the planning sessions and put his signature right next to Jacobi’s on the training schedule. The SRRT’s chain of command was wildly unorthodox. Ben commanded the ship, and he was responsible for everyone that was on it, but the only real crew he was charged with was Petty Officer Lee. Jacobi was officially in charge of all the ground pounders, but SGM Queen was really the boss. As the LT, Jacobi still needed to sign off on everything, and the Infantry and Fleet always needed their pound of polyplast for anything that happened, so everything went on record as Ben and her being in charge.

Ben had learned long ago that reality and MTOEs didn’t always add up, and this was just the wildest example. Even above him, with everything that seemed to be happening, he wasn’t sure the chain of command was clear. Sure, he reported to RADM Stillwater as the senior Commonwealth officer on the planet, but the RADM had taken a back seat in this whole endeavor to Thomas Gold and Gold Technologies personnel. Even the Fleet engineering guys seemed to be second class citizens when it came to working on Argo and all their neat new toys.

<Speaking of new toys.> Ben looked down at his wrist to check the time.

“We need to move.” He knew it was necessary to get accountability of the whole SRRT for the day before all of this kicked off, but that didn’t mean it crunched their already limited time. “Let’s go.”

As the van containing the grunts drove off, Ben led Jacobi and Lee back toward the administration building at the center of the base. Already, all signs of the Liberation Movement’s terrorist attack had been scrubbed away. If Ben hadn’t been there himself, he would have doubted anything had occurred at all.

<And that’s the way the planetary authorities and the corporations want it,> he reminded himself.

Most of all, Thomas Gold didn’t want any reminders about the catastrophic breech of security that had led to the death of relationships he’d spent decades cultivating. Gold Technologies had probably bought and paid for the last governor’s election, now the lieutenant governor wasn’t as securely in their pocket, or was at least going to cost his father a few extra bucks, or favors, before getting in line. Ben didn’t like thinking like that, but that didn’t stop it from being the reality of the situation. When you started to get that high in the corporate and political arenas everything had an angle.

<Which brings us to today.> Ben descended the lift with Jacobi and Lee by his side to the hangar where Argo was stored.

Ben walked up to his ship and ran a hand along it. She looked pretty much the same from the outside. There were some cosmetic differences where weapons and defensive measures had been added, but she looked the same. The inside was a different matter, and that’s where they were heading.

Lee led the way up the starboard gangway and through the hatch. “Make way for the Captain!” She cleared a path through sheer personality as she walked ahead of Ben through the cramped passageways.

A normal gunboat was rated for twenty crew members: ten spacers to run and fight the ship, and ten marines to protect the ship and be deployed as needed. Today there had to be forty people on board jammed into every possible nook and cranny. Most were the heads of the various Fleet and Gold Technologies engineering teams that had been working on Argo for several months to get the new alien tech integrated and installed with its human counterparts. Ben wasn’t an engineer, but he knew that wasn’t always easy, and he couldn’t imagine how long the refit process would take for battleships when it took months to just convert a 125 meter gunboat.

<Until we get the green light to trade with the rest of the Hegemony it’s not an issue.> Ben remembered as engineers squeezed out of the way as the fiery PO3’s glared at them.

There were a few military personnel who didn’t quell at the sight of PO3 Lee, but they still respectfully moved aside from Ben. He was the skipper, and he was god on this ship.

“Captain on the bridge!” Lee called out as they emerged on the usually cramped bridge, which was now downright claustrophobic.

Thomas Gold was currently sitting in the captain’s chair and talking with RADM Stillwater. Likewise, PO3 Lee’s station at the helm was occupied by someone with a chest full of medals in the uniform of the system defense force. Ben left Lee to deal with her interloper as he pushed aside a few people to get to his chair.

“Ben!” His father was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He was practically vibrating with excitement. “She’s a beauty isn’t she?” He waved his hands around to indicate Argo.

“She’s always been a good ship,” Ben kept his face cordial, but his father was grating on his nerves. The Fleet used to be a way to get away from the Gold business empire. Now, it looked like his life had been lumped back in with his father. Worst of all, Ben knew that without his father’s intercession after the New Lancashire incident, he’d be out on his ass and in Gold Technologies’ corporate fleet. So, he literally owed his current position to his father. “Now if you can please move. I need my chair.”

“I was thinking I’d take her out.” RADM Stillwater stated.

The engineers and other civilians within earshot didn’t think much of the comment, but the military personnel froze with their mouths open in shock. A RADM might outrank a LCDR by several grades, but the captain of a ship was the captain of a ship. It went beyond tradition that the captain was in charge. It didn’t matter if High Admiral Gilmore was onboard Argo; Ben would still be in charge. For the RADM to try and take control of today’s operation was beyond bad taste. It was naval blasphemy.

So Ben felt completely comfortable in his response. “No,” he stated flatly. It helped that he’d never liked the RADM, and didn’t care if the RADM liked him. He already knew his OER was going to suck, but that was the flipside to his father’s involvement in this project: Ben was in it.

The RADM’s nostril’s flared and his face got red. The senior officer wasn’t a small man, and it looked like it had been a decade since he’d gone on a run, so he looked like an engorged cherry as he steamed and glared at Ben.

“Excuse me,” the RADM practically growled.

“Respectfully, Sir,” Ben meant absolutely zero respect as he said it, “but I’m the captain of Argo, and I will take her out to put her through her paces. If you have a problem with that we can radio fleet command and get this sorted out. We’ve got these fancy new QE communicators, so we’ll get a response soon.”

One of the great upgrades Argo had undergone was in the coms department. Normally, communications were limited to light speed with the exception of the massive QE setups on Launchers. What the new Hegemony technology allowed was an infinitely smaller piece of tech to be installed on individual ships and powered by the gluon reactors. It was going to revolutionize interstellar communications once it was mainstreamed, which Ben knew his father was going to pioneer, but at the moment it would allow Argo’s coms to reach all the way to a similar setup back on New Washington. Best of all, Ben knew what their answer would be.

“That won’t be necessary, Lieutenant Commander,” the RADM put as much disdain into the rank as he could. “I just believed a more seasoned hand would be needed for such a delicate operation…but if you insist.” The RADM backed down, and Thomas Gold got up from the captain’s chair.

His father might not understand military protocols as well as someone in the Fleet, but he noticed a power struggle when he saw one, and he smiled when he knew his son emerged victorious.

“Attention everyone!” Jacobi’s voice, pitched to address a company of grunts on a firing range, resonated on the small bridge. “Only essential personnel are allowed on the bridge now. Everyone else please find another spot and secure yourself. We’ll be setting sail in five minutes.”  She left it up to the gathered people to determine who was “essential”, and guessed correctly that they knew who could stay and go.

Ben silently thanked his foresight in bringing along the infantry LT. He knew this mission was going to be a shitshow, and as the OIC of the SRRT’s ground element, he was able to pull her away from the insertions of the Individualized Organic Router to act as the head of security for the Argo on this mission. He checked the regulations and for an out-of-system mission, without even a fraction of the crew compliment, with all the top-secret tech they had on board, a security chief was required. He couldn’t think of anyone better than the ground commander, who also happened to be his girlfriend. This was one of those instances where rank had its privileges.

After Jacobi’s announcement, everyone but Thomas Gold, RADM Stillwater, and two chief engineers left the bridge. At seven people, that still left the bridge much more cramped than during normal operations, but they would have to make do. It didn’t look like anyone else was going anywhere.

“Lieutenant, secure the ship.” Ben gave the command.

“Aye, Sir, securing the ship.” Jacobi pressed a button on her terminal and the ship’s exterior hatches sealed themselves and disappeared behind panels of a ship’s equivalent of Dragonscales that slid into place. Noticeable hatches were structural weak points for the enemy to target, so this procedure made that targeting more difficult.

The procedure also required that she walk through the ship and ensure everything, and everyone, was secured for takeoff. This was necessary for travel through atmosphere. If Argo was already in space it would be different; although, Ben ran a tight ship and things would be secured anyway. With the forty people on board today however, they didn’t want any injuries; especially when it came to all the VIPs involved. Ben just hoped Veronica Black wasn’t onboard. Jacobi wasn’t the jealous type, but he wouldn’t put it past her to “miss” something not life threatening that might fall and hit the good doctor while they punched through the turbulence of New Savannah’s sky.

“All secured,” Jacobi returned to the bridge five minutes later.

“Alert traffic control, and get us in the pattern,” Ben passed to Aiko.

She took it from there as the hanger underneath the base opened up a tunnel to release the Argo from a hidden blast door fifty kilometers away. People could theoretically be watching for the ship’s emergence, but the chance of Blockie espionage was small on New Savannah. It didn’t take them long to make the climb through the atmosphere and into space. Aiko made their speed leisurely to avoid any unwanted attention. To the copious traffic in near-orbit around New Savannah and its moons, Argo was just a gunboat going out on patrol.

“Make sure our guests don’t get restless,” Ben suggested to Jacobi.

It was the nature of space travel to be long and boring, and this wasn’t a pleasure cruise like many of their VIPs might be used to. The engineers would be busy with scanning and taking readings of everything, but the people who just wanted to be here to say they’d been part of this important moment in human history were in for a long few hours.

“We’re in the pattern, Sir. Course zero-three-five. That’ll take us out of the way and put us behind the gas giant so we can run our tests undisturbed.” Aiko informed as they settled in for a three-hour flight to their destination.

“Good work, helm. Let’s run a full set of diagnostics before we get there to make sure every system is green and that nobody broke her during the refit.” Ben ignored the glares the two engineers were giving him and got to work. It might be three hours of downtime for some, but as the skipper he had plenty to do.

The three hours flew by as they approached the point in space that had been designated as their testing site. It happened to be behind a tidally locked, huge, Jovian gas giant that shielded them from other system traffic. This was where the Commonwealth and corporations did a lot of their weapons testing they couldn’t do on the planet’s surface or the inhabited moons.

They were only five minutes out, and almost completed their deceleration when the last diagnostic came back green. “The board is green, Sir.” Aiko replied. The engineers who were scrutinizing the same data waited another twenty minutes before acknowledging that everything seemed good to go.

“All hands, it’s the time you’ve all been waiting for. Prepare to portal,” Ben announced to everyone.  There was no raucous cheering, just an exchange of excited smiles between scientific experts.

Space travel, despite its frequency, was inherently dangerous, and new types of space travel only compounded the issue. Ben had a vivid image of Argo exploding into a billion pieces as they powered up the gluon reactor to the appropriate settings. He would have been a little more comfortable if Carol was present to troubleshoot issues, but people way above his paygrade wanted this to be a completely human venture.

Ben thought that was stupid because if they failed one of the galaxy’s titans of industry, a crucial planet’s elite, many ranking military members, and little old Ben Gold would have their component atoms scattered across the cosmos.

“Reactor at one hundred percent. Everything is still green.” Jacobi announced from her terminal.

“Helm, initialize QE link with the buoy at Temperance Ending,” Ben commanded.

That was another point he didn’t agree with. Instead of portaling to a well-established system with a Launcher, the powers that be had decided that secrecy was secondary only to safety. So, for the first of mankind’s portaling trials, Argo was traveling a short seventeen light years to the sparsely populated Temperance Ending system. It was a Commonwealth system so far away from Blockie space, and so unimportant strategically, militarily, and economically that there was virtually no one watching it to see if the new transportation method worked. The Fleet had even had to drop one of its newly designed QE buoys, courtesy of Gold Technologies, for the portaling tech to even lock on to the system.

“Ready to go, Skipper.” Aiko stated after Ben seemed to hesitate for a moment too long.

“Amber, double check to coordinates.” Ben asked the upgraded artificial intelligence installed in Argo. Ben didn’t know who named it Amber, or why, but he guessed it might have been some long lost potential girlfriend of one of the software engineers. “Nothing against you, Petty Officer, but I’d rather get this one right.”

“No arguments here, Sir.” Aiko didn’t look upset at his lack of confidence in her navigation.

“Coordinates are accurate, Lieutenant Commander Gold,” Amber’s computerized voice was sure and confident to lend credence to her statement.

Since Ben was pretty sure Hegemony level AI’s were much better than humanity’s attempt at the same thing, he was good with her assurances. “Activate the drive.”

Everything up to this point had been pretty typical of humanity’s FTL travels over the last few centuries, but the portaling drive was something completely alien, and never before tested by mankind. The difference was made known once Aiko activated the drive. The old Alcubierre Drives had no transition between sublight and FTL travel. One second a ship was in normal space and the next was moving faster than light. Portaling was different. Gold light flashed as the drive opened a gateway into the interdimensional network that humanity had barely scratched the surface of.

Ben thought it was a little like a flower blossoming in fast forward as the portal opened in front of Argo. “Petty Officer?” Ben asked.

“Portal is stable, Sir.” Aiko responded, Jacobi concurred, Amber agreed, and the engineers gave thumbs up.

“Ok, take us in.” Ben gulped as Argo surged forward with a single pulse of her engines and was swallowed by the portal.

Once the ship entered, that portal folded in on itself and closed behind it in the blink of an eye. The trip to Temperance Ending, which would have taken the old Argo eighteen hours, and expended 90 percent of its exotic matter fuel, took the new Argo one hour and three minutes and barely put a dent in the gluon reactor’s power supply.

Argo and its passengers would spend days in Temperance Endings going over the results of the sixty-three minute trip, but they would all come to the same conclusion. Mankind’s travels through the stars had just changed forever, and for the better.

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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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