Two Worlds – Chapter 304

Benjamin Gold

Location: Orbit, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The holo-tank was a nightmare. Ben and his team were tracking thousands of contacts…no…tens of thousands of contacts. On top of that, priority was being assigned to certain contracts that was turning the mass exodus of earth into a traffic jam of epic proportions. Ben had seen clusterfucks before. He’d even been a part of some, but he was positive he would never see anything like this ever again.

<And I’m just dealing with the few hundred contacts heading for Jack Frost.> He did not envy the astrogation control tasked with getting this makeshift refugee fleet organized.

Like a master pianist, Ben moved his hand through the holo-tank, assigning priorities, shifting incoming comms requests to the comms station, and assigning flight patterns for the Spyders, shuttles, and private yachts inbound to his battleship. He looked over and saw the wince as a PO2 at the comms station got another screamer.

Ben had no idea what was going on down on Earth, but obviously anyone with a ship that could break orbit was doing that. The problem he was quickly realizing was that many of the rich and famous preferred to have sub-light skiffs they could cruise around the system. Sure, more than likely they had FTL capable boats as well, but he knew from experience that it was much cheaper to dock your boat at Mars, where there was less traffic, it was cheaper, and the strict population controls kept another catastrophe like the overpopulation of earth from happening again.

At the moment, having a boat a hundred million miles away, with an unknown enemy fleet between you and it, the tax rates for luxury ships seemed like a comical secondary thought. For Ben, and the crew of Snowman, it meant everyone with a few million bucks to rub together thought they deserved special treatment.

The comms section had been in more than one screaming match with these rich assholes who thought they’d be able to park their little toys in the shuttle bay and take them to Alpha Centauri. The bay, and every other nook and cranny of the ship, was going to be loaded down with people, so that was an obvious no go.

<But try telling that to a third-generation trust fund kid with blue in his eyes who thinks that world is all about him and his precious twentieth century sports paraphernalia that just has to come to Centauri.> Ben rolled his eyes.He was more than aware that he was of the same trust fund kid breed, but he was in the CIC working his ass off to get people off the planet; not complaining and wasting precious time.

He turned back to the holo-tank and continued to do his job for a few more minutes until a high-pitched shrill went through the CIC. The lights dimmed red, and his holo-tank updated with multiple new contacts.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he didn’t bother to keep the thought to himself. “One-two unidentified contacts sunward at one-eight-one degrees, four hundred million kilometers and holding position.” He was calling out the enemy disposition when the lighting returned to normal. “New contacts identified as friendly, the Midas carrier group from Gold Technologies.” He breathed a sigh of relief. He couldn’t deal with another set of problems.

“Commodore Zahn sends his compliments,” the comms officer announced. “And requests orders for how he can best assist the evacuation.”

The comms officer was just relaying what was going on so the XO had situational awareness. Any orders from Snowman would come from the skipper on the bridge, but in this case, some admiral in charge of the makeshift fleet would let George Zahn know the best way him and his small group could help.

<How the hell did he even get here so fast.> Granted, Ben didn’t have any idea where the good Commodore was before this, but it was a little curious that word had gone out to the carrier group, when the rest of the fleet couldn’t even make contact with Mars.

“Gold, get down to the flight deck now!” the XO’s order cut through his thought process.

“Sir?” Ben asked.

“I don’t have time to say things twice, Gold. Get there now.” The XO was already moving on, and Ben was already on his shit list, so he got up and handed control over to his CPO.

He passed the marines guarding the CIC and took the lift to the deck with the flight deck. He passed more marines leading groups of well-dressed men and women down the corridors on his way. He heard them complaining that they were already filling up all the auditoriums and rec facilities. They’d be packed nut to butt all the way to Centauri.

If Ben thought the corridors were clogged, he was unprepared for the flight deck. People stood in squares as the quartermaster department worked at a frantic pace to move them out and new shuttles in. Ben saw an obviously wealthy couple yelling at a LT who was supervising their yacht being pushed out through the shield. The gray-haired man threatening a lawsuit, and the exhausted LT replying that the man could shut up and join the line or go down with his ship.

Now that Ben was down here, he had no idea what he was doing. He tried to stay out of the way of the organized chaos, but there was no out of the way anymore. Several deckhands gave him the stink eye, despite his gold stripes, and he couldn’t blame them. He stood there awkwardly for a few minutes until his IOR beeped with an incoming message. Everything became clear as a shuttle cleared the force field less than thirty seconds later. The admiral’s stars on the side and the transponders had the deck crew nearly in an apoplectic fit.

Ben immediately jogged over as the shuttle pivoted in the air to come down with its ramp facing the rear of the deck. Ben’s presence seemed to help the crewman, who went about their procedures for securing the ship, and left everything else to Ben.

As the ramp dropped, he assumed the position of attention and gave a crisp salute as a woman with five gold stripes descended the ramp.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold at your service, ma’am.” He dropped it when Admiral Berg gave him a quick, casual wave of her hand.

“I need to get to your flag bridge, and get me your skippers comms code,” she ordered, and he obeyed.

He didn’t know what the Chief of Naval Intelligence was doing on his boat, but it probably meant Snowman had just become one of the most important ships in the fleet. That gave him an idea. He sent a message to back to his team in the CIC to keep a look out for a number of ships, and if he spotted them, to get them routed to Jack Frost. It was against regs, but in the chaos he doubted anyone would notice or care.

He played guide and took the ADM to the flag bridge where the skipper was waiting for them. Whether the man was happy to see the woman or not, he didn’t show it, and Ben didn’t stay around long enough to find out. With a wave he was dismissed, and he got back to the CIC.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: North American Eastern Seaboard, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Heads up, everyone. It’s showtime!” The LT’s voice cut through the mundane nothingness that had been Coop’s existence since his squadron’s Spyder dropped him in the middle of nowhere. Well, not technically in the middle of nowhere.

There were two squads of reservist grunts charged with manning the TACCOM/STRATNET node buried underneath a hill behind him. The SSG in charge of the twenty men nearly shit his pants when Coop’s MOUNT was rolled out of the back of the bird. Up until then, they’d been guarding a piece of tech that wasn’t working. Now, they were an integral part of the atmospheric air defense plan. Which meant they now had a big bullseye painted on their heads.

They’d run a pair of cables out to his MOUNT and attached them to external data points Coop hadn’t even been trained on yet. That gave him a hardline to the Commonwealth’s main defensive mainframe, and how he learned everything was fucked because they’d been hacked. He saw messages from tech experts saying that wasn’t the case, but when the enemy got inside your system and made them a giant clusterfuck, Coop considered that a hack.

“TACCOM is showing three hundred inbound. I say again, we’ve got three-zero-zero enemy atmospheric craft entering the stratosphere. Designated Echo-One to Echo Three-Zero-Zero.”

The eastern seaboard of the former United States was almost twenty thousand kilometers, which meant if the enemy evenly spaced their drops the ships would be more than sixty kilometers apart. Since that plan was tactically retarded, Coop guessed they would bunch up in strategic locations, probably near big metropolises, where they could establish a beachhead. It was his job to make sure that didn’t happen.

It was only about fifty kilometers from the stratosphere to the surface, but the enemy was fighting the atmosphere and coming in on an east-west arch. His MOUNT’s AI calculated all of the data and highlighted a field of fire in red that he was responsible for. It started as a small part of the horizon in the distance the quickly widened as the enemy ships got closer.

“Staff Sergeant, you and your boys ready?” Coop sent to the NCO who’d turned into his ammo bitch.

“Yes, sir,” the man still didn’t sound happy about it, but it was the only thing he could do that made him useful.

“All units, engage at will,” the LT ordered.

His MOUNT’s vision magnified so his area of responsibility looked like it was right in front of him. His armored chest cavity popped open and his mini-missiles stuck their high-explosive heads out. At the appropriate moment, he fired them all. Dozens of missiles streamed out toward the incoming targets as the sky began to erupt. It was like someone had paid for a massive firework show that started at one point in the sky and works its way across. With all the MOUNTs protecting the coast, they had several missiles for each inbound target, but Coop doubted they’d get through. These bastards had destroyed Mars, he doubted they’d be able to put a dent in there…

{Target’s engaged,} his AI spoke in his head as his own missiles popped off with his own contribution to the show. {Battle damage assessment processing.} The explosions continued across the sky as more missiles joined the fray and the enemy drew closer. {One-eight enemy confirmed destroyed.}

<What?> Coop couldn’t believe his ears, but he didn’t have time to dwell.

His next-gen magnetic accelerator was already tracking across the sky. He would feel the hum as the weapon powered up, followed by a jerk as it fired. He left it to the AI as the armor’s mechanism reloaded the single shot weapon and he scanned for another target. It located a boxy blob, hummed, and fired. The enemy ships were getting closer and closer, and there was no way he’d be able to take them all out before they were on top of him.

His armor blared with an incoming fire warning as he shot off a third round and blew another blob out of the sky. Bolts of energy lanced around his position; one striking his shield and depleting it by half. The SSG was already running for his life, but a blast caught him, vaporizing him and turning his to ash.

<Shit,> Coop cursed as he moved to avoid more incoming fire from more ships bearing down on him. <Shoot, move, and communicate.> His accelerator hummed and fired as he moved.

He was about to pivot and bring his shot-range graviton cannon to bear on the enemy, when he felt his foot snag on something.

“Motherfucker!” Coop swore as his MOUNT’s servo whined to keep him upright. It failed, but he was able to get his hands out in front of himself, so his two cannons didn’t get buried in the dirt, but it didn’t stop the enemy’s fire from stitching its way across his shoulders, back, ass, and legs.

Red warnings blared and then everything went black. “Endex,” the LT called as the simulation ended. Coop’s vision returned to the world where is armor was on its hands and knees.

He quickly got to his feet, and ignored the laughter of the grunts that had gathered to run the exercise. He gave them a finger as he dialed into the after action report being led by the LT. This was the unit’s third exercise in half as many days, and none had gone well. However, this was the first time he’d tripped over the conduits attaching him to the information systems; systems that still didn’t work.

He knew what his comment to the LT was going to be. Ditch the stupid cables and let them engage the enemy on their own. The enemy would be able to cut whatever limited comms the friendly units in the area had anyway once they landed. They should all get used to fighting on their own.

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Bonus Chapter – Two Worlds – Chapter 303

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Assembly Area Kansas, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“What the shit was that,” Coop automatically dropped to one knee to reduce his profile.

Everyone waiting in the obscenely long chow line looked up at the flash in the sky. Coop’s first guess was orbital combat, but his brief scan didn’t show anything in low orbit returning fire. It was just the one, bright flash.

“Something tells me we’re going to be missing hot chow for a while.” An older NCO grimaced and exited the chow line.

That was blasphemy to Coop. no one got out of a chow line…no one…without good reason. As if the universe was giving him the giant finger, his IOR pinged softly.

{Movement orders for Operation Shield Wall,} was the title. Coop sighed as PADs all around him beeped, chipped, and chimed as the rest of the orders started to filter down to the enlisted personnel.

“Fuck me,” Coop whispered as waypoints and time hacks started to appear in his vision. Whatever was happening, the LT wanted him synching up with his armor in the next thirty minutes.

It would take fifteen minutes to do that, and five minutes to get to the makeshift armory the MOUNTs were stashed in. By Coop’s count, that gave him ten minutes to eat. The line was rapidly clearing and soldiers hurried off to their assemble areas. Whatever was going to happen looked like it was kicking off soon. The old soldier had been right. This was the last chance for hot chow until god knew when. Other soldiers at least got MREs. Coop and the other armored cavalry WOs got tubes stuck down their throats for water and nutrient sludge.

It was the sign of a true soldier that Coop was willing to take a chance for hot chow over the possibility of getting chewed out by the LT, but as the line quickly evaporated, he was confident he could have his cake and eat it too…literally; there was chocolate cake. Because he was a good boyfriend and baby daddy, he made sure to grab one for Eve.

His belly stuffed, and a smudge of chocolate across this breast, he headed back for the armory. <I don’t envy the MOUNTs waste recycling system when I shit out this brick,> he chuckled to himself as he ran his finger on the chocolate goodness that was the icing on Eve’s cake.

He was a good boyfriend, not a saint. He savored the sugar on his tongue as he entered the controlled chaos of the armory.

“Coop, stop sucking that finger like it’s your girlfriend’s titty and get over here,” Camila shouted for everyone in the entire company to hear.

The dragoons of third squadron were all huddled up around the LT, who had a portable holo-tank with a map of the continent open in front of her. She looked like she was mid-brief. Coop pulled up the time hack from his orders and saw they were blinking red and showing he was five minutes late. He’d minimized them when he got his chow, and apparently someone had moved the time up.

As Coop approached, the LT gave him a hard look, but didn’t say anything else. The look was enough. It said quite clearly, <I’ll deal with you later.>

“The brass is still figuring out the concept of operations,” she continued without missing a beat. “What we do know, and what hasn’t changed, is that our battalion is a strategic resource. We’re the toughest thing we’ve got on planet, so wherever the fighting is the hottest, that is where we’ll be.”

“What’s the threat?” Coop knew he should keep his mouth shut, he’d missed that part of the OPORDR by being late, but he couldn’t not know.

“Unsure,” the LT looked down at the holo-tank’s controls, and the other dragoons looked away. They’d clearly been through this song and dance before.

“Unknown enemy, unknown capabilities, roger that,” Coop decided not to be an ass about it. The LT was operating with only as much as information as was given to her.

The LT looked relieved and continued. “Third squadron will be deploying individually. Camilla, you and Coop will be stationed in this vicinity,” she highlighted two locations. One in Carolina Sector, and the other a hundred-plus kiometers to the south. “Anything coming down from orbit toward the east coast will pass through several squadron’s AOs. We’ll be hard linked in with local defense forces anti-air sensors…”

“Hard linked?” Based on the looks on the other dragoon’s faces, Coop wasn’t the only one who didn’t get it.

“Everything is shot to shit. All software not hardwired is unreliable at best and deadly at worst.” There was something more to that statement, but Coop didn’t press it. “Ok, so we’ll be hardwired to the net, but verify anything with your own sensors. Line of sight seems to be the most reliable. We’ll provide anti-air as needed and then movement to contact with the enemy when they land. Our purpose is to disrupt any chance of the enemy to establish a beachhead. Local forces will react as needed, but be prepared to move. Spyders are being reconfigured to carry one of us and spare parts. No telling how long this will last.” She continued. The LT was going to be stationed nearly in New York Sector.

Coop pulled up the OPORDR and schematic attachments. He had to give it to the brass, they had thought it out. The eastern seaboard was some of the most heavily populated territory on the planet, and the overlapping and interlocked defenses were going to be a tough nut for the enemy to crack. Coop and Camila were a just a cog, a bigger cog, but a cog nonetheless in the plan. He continued to scan the lengthy document until he saw where Eve was going to be. Miraculously, she was going to be stationed at the naval hospital.

<Damn if that girl doesn’t get what she wants.> he smiled.

“Ok everyone, let’s suit up.” The LT finished and the four dragoons hustled to their MOUNTs.

Coop wasn’t looking forward to getting cramped into a ball again, but he was ready for this hurry up and wait shit to be over. If they were going to fight then he wanted them to get it over with.

He just hoped his kid wasn’t caught in the middle if things went to shit.

 

***

 

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: Orbit, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

A high-pitched shrill went through the ship, “All hands, this is your captain.” The voice on the 1MC was somber. Everything that had happened recently was tinged with sadness.

It was one of those moments human beings would look back on as turning points in history: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941; September 11, 2001; the first strike of the Last Terran War, November 7, 2088; first landing on Alpha Centauri May 1, 2153. And now, added to that list of famous and infamous points in history, the destruction of Mars.

“What we have all witnessed here today is an incalculable tragedy. Not even the most notorious Blockie Admiral would stoop so low as to drop a moon on a planet.”

<That’s because a no one could drop a moon on a planet until today.>

“The Sol system has seen nothing like this for over sixty-five million years, but we are no dinosaurs.” Resolve started to seep back into the man’s voice. “We do not know who we face, or what their full capabilities are, but we will not rest until Mars is avenged. We will not tire until this enemy has been wiped from our skies, and vaporized down to the atom. Earth is our home and we will defend it till our dying breath. That is our job, our sole purpose. We are First Fleet, the rock of earth, and we will not let her fall.”

Ben wasn’t one for sappy speeches, but after what he’d just seen, he felt his chest swell with pride. It didn’t matter that the fleet had basically given him the shaft. It didn’t matter than he was on his way out sooner rather than later. What mattered was that something was attacking his home, the home of humanity. What mattered was he was in a position to do something about it.

“We have a change of mission,” the captain continued, a hint of bitterness tinging his words. “Admiral Duvall was too late to prevent Mars, and the joint fleet is turning and burning its way back toward Earth. The enemy has started to depart Mars orbit and oriented itself towards Earth. Estimated time of arrival is eleven hours. The enemy’s propulsion capabilities are superior to ours. It is too early to tell whether they will overtake the joint fleet as it attempts to return.”

Ben took a deep breath. It was a commander’s worst nightmare to be caught out of position and at the mercy of physics. Ben couldn’t even imagine what Duvall was feeling right now.

“If the admiral is able to return, he will rally at Luna. The rest of the Blockie’s Motherland Fleet is burning for the moon, as well as a portion of the Euro’s Home Fleet. Along with the defensive rings, the combined fleets hope to hold the enemy.”

Ben quickly pulled up a system map, and for once, the universe seemed to smile on them. If the enemy held to their estimated time table, Luna would be directly in the path of the oncoming fleet. It was a brilliant stroke of luck. The firepower on the defensive rings was more than the fleets combined.

“A task force from the Euro’s fleet and our own remaining ships have been ordered to assist with evacuations.”

Ben felt the collective groan of the ship as anger gripped the entire crew. The greatest battle in human history was about to unfold, and they’d be baby-sitting. Ben knew the military’s job was to protect the civilians, to put themselves between the innocent and the enemy, but despite that, their mission felt like a cop out.

The memory of Jacobi’s face getting a hot dog from New York’s mid-city flittered through his mind, and a mild panic filled him. Suddenly, getting civilians off the planet seemed like the most important job in the world.

“All but one of the marine companies and all of the Spyders are ordered to scramble and clear the flight deck. Company commanders will receive orders from earth command when you touch down. The remaining company will work with crew to provide crowd control. The rest of the crew, prepare to take on civilians. We will load up to what our life support can sustain and escort a fleet of civilian ships out of the local gravity well. Once we achieve that they will jump to wherever they want, and carry word of the attack on Earth to the corners of the Commonwealth. We will make a least-time portal to Alpha Centauri, drop the civilians and return to continue the fight. This might not be what we want, but it is our mission. Get to it. Captain, out.”

Ben, and everyone else aboard Jack Frost did just that. They were about to have a lot of company.

 

***

 

ADM Sonya Berg

Location: On Earth approach, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Admiral Berg felt completely and totally helpless. She’d watched the destruction of Second Fleet with silent terror. She had data to relay to the defenders of earth, but she didn’t know what help it would be. Not now. Not after all that they’d already witnessed.

She thought of her family. Derrick was still in rehab on earth. Eve was on earth with her unit. Her unborn granddaughter was on earth, <Hell, even Cooper is on earth.>

“TACCOM and STRATNET are offline here too, ma’am,” her staff officer at the comms station announced. “We’ll be in tight-beam range in twelve minutes. I’m putting together a burst package for transmission to the rest of First Fleet, although most of the fleet looks long gone.”

“After what happened to Mars, they’ll be forming a defensive front around Luna. They can’t allow what happened there to happen to earth.” Sonya informed, and the rest of the crew nodded understanding. “Send it to the first capital ship we get on our scope, they’ll daisy chain it to everyone who’s left.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sonya continued to watch the plot, and the increasing amount of surface-to-space traffic that was showing up on their scanners as they got closer.

“Is that…”

“An evacuation,” Sonya confirmed.

Everyone with a space worthy craft looked like they were getting the hell out of dodge. As a portion of Earth’s population, that was a fraction of a fraction. Tens of billions of people lived on humanity’s homeworld and in the orbital habitats. A chunk of those people lived off government subsidies in PHAs or other environments. So this evacuation boiled down to nothing more than the rich getting out of town while the poor stayed to die, and the military died for them.

<It’s a shitty world,> she sighed, and knew there was nothing she could do about it.

“Comms package away,” the officer announced a few minutes later. “What now?”

“Get us to the nearest ship with a flag bridge,” Sonya ordered.

She wasn’t going to be able to do much, but at least from there she could access her network. When shit hit the fan, she could at least direct people to where it was the deepest.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 301

Benjamin Gold

Location: Orbit, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Can we reroute, possibly through this junction here?” Ben suggested as the holographic circuitry floated in the air in front of him. An SP2, an electrician’s mate, stood beside him, scratching his head. Ben didn’t take that as a good sign.

“I don’t know, sir,” the SP2 finally sighed. “Everything should be working properly. This is probably software. I don’t know fixing the hardware will do anything.”

“Will it hurt anything?” Ben countered.

“No, it shouldn’t. Signal might be a little weaker since the reroute has to go through this junction, which can’t handle the load. Call it ten percent power lose, but that’s better than what we have now,” the SP2 shrugged.

“Do it,” Ben ordered, and the SP2 nodded and went to work.

It was busywork. The skipper and XO were ripping their hair out trying to figure out a way to get messages to the other ships of the fleet without relying on short-range, tight-beam lasers and communications panels mounted on hulls. It was a miracle ships even had those redundancies anymore. They were the remnants of a bygone area of signal hacking, malware, and compromised crypto-security. A time that everyone thought STRATNET and TACCOM had ended.

<Thank god we didn’t take them off, or else we’d be deaf on top of blind.> Ben returned his attention to the holo-tank at the center of the operation’s CIC department. It showed pretty much the same picture, although, imagery coming in from Mars was a little over three minutes old. It was still a hell of a lot better than nothing.

“What’s our fix?” the XO didn’t even bother to call Ben’s name.

Ben detailed the plan and the XO nodded his approval, which was enough time for Ben to get some breathing room before the fix inevitably failed. Techs were busy combing through work stations as well, looking for any compromised code. ADM Duvall wanted the fleet at one hundred percent readiness, and with each passing hour, that reality looked less and less likely. Whatever fight they were going into, they weren’t going to be in tip-top shape.

<We should be refining SOPs and procedures for this,> Ben thought for the hundredth time, but the suggestions of a meager LCDR wouldn’t tickle an ADM’s ear. Hell, with his reputation, Ben had trouble getting the XO to listen to his suggestions.

“I’ve got movement,” the CPO at the holo-tank announced. Everyone froze for a second before a mad scramble ensured.

“Are they heading our way?” a tinge of fear was evident in the XO’s voice.

“Negative. We’ve still got ships in orbit covering the major cities, but they still aren’t firing. I’m showing dozens of ships moving away from the planet toward Phobos.

Phobos was the closer of Mars’s two moons; the other being Deimos. Named for the personification of fear in Greek mythology, the moon was only about eleven kilometers across, but only six thousand kilometers from the surface of Mars. It was the closest orbiting moon in the solar system, and had been home to defensive batteries. Those had been shattered when the enemy crushed Second Fleet. It was just another rock in space now.

“Get me a count,” the XO ordered.

Slowly, the next half hour showed the enemy move half of its remaining strength between Mars and Phobos. Ben watched it all happening while scratching his head. It was a poor angle to launch an attack on Earth. They weren’t hiding behind the moon, or trying to throw off First Fleet’s count of their strength. There was no tactical value either.

<What are you up to?> He thought along with every other spacer in the fleet.

That was about the time the electrician’s mate returned with a shake of his head: mission failure. That didn’t help the XO’s mood, and he took it out on the CIC, especially Ben’s section, since it had been their plan.

<They’re just letting us stew here, sitting on our thumbs, and bitching at each other,> if morale and nerves among the fleet matched the CIC, things weren’t good.

After the XO’s chewing out, Ben entered some limits for the AI to work within, and sent it to work on the problem of what the hell the enemy was up to. It could churn through probabilities infinitely faster than he could even think of them.

Apparently, someone out there had the same idea, because orders came through not too long later.

“The fleet is advancing?” Ben read in confusion. None of the ship’s issues were fixed, and if Jack Frost was still hobbled, so was everyone else.

“Not everyone,” the XO countered. “The admiral is leaving a token force to guard the planet if the rest of the fleet fails. It looks like the Euros and Blockies are sending contingents as well, but we’re staying put.”

Ben knew being one of the handful of battleships ordered to stand down from the assault was a grave insult, but he still breathed a sigh of relief. “What did we do to earn this honor?” his tone was laced with irony.

“Skipper must have pissed in the admiral’s champagne at some fancy reception or something,” the XO answered the rhetorical question, clearly fuming at being left behind. “Let’s make the most of the extra time we have and get these issues fixed. If we get it done quickly, we can transmit the patches and the fleet will be ready to take down those fuckers.”

Ben tried not to raise his eyebrow at the XO. He’d noticed this mentality since being assigned to First Fleet. It was considered a prestigious assignment, but they hadn’t seen combat in a century. Not since the last great war with the Blockies had units been pulled from First Fleet for combat duty on the front lines. Second Fleet had handled that duty. Now, the fleet’s lack of combat veterans was showing. Everyone was ready to jump into it with an unknown enemy force that had just literally smashed a commonwealth fleet to dust. Having seen a few fights, and fired some shots in anger, Ben wasn’t so gung-ho to jump into something he didn’t understand. The XO should be the same way, but he was chomping at the bit like everyone else.

The Euro and Blockie contingents didn’t help Ben’s nerves. The Euros were only supplying two squadrons of ships, one of battleships, and the other of cruisers. The Blockies were sending more, Ben counted twenty-five, and all battleships, but they were moving at a safe distance from the main body of the fleet. They’d be able to join the fight, but they were out of position and vulnerable to enemy attach without the support of the much larger Commonwealth-Euro contingent.

<And if they’re having the same issues . . .?> Ben left the thought unfinished and reviewed what was being left behind. The Blockies now owned the space around Earth in terms of numbers, but Ben’s contingent and the main Euro fleet would still give them a hell of a fight if they decided to press the advantage. Doing so would be suicide if the enemy fleet turned their eyes on Earth, but Ben had seen people do stupid things during his time in the fleet. There was no guarantee common sense would win out.

The AI beeped behind him. He almost missed it with everything else going on. He didn’t catch it until the third chime. He left the crowded holo-tank and peeked at the results.

<Oh my god.> His jaw dropped, and he prayed to every mythical power in the universe he was wrong. Now, he could guess why ADM Duvall was running off to fight half-cocked.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Assembly Area Kansas, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Coop stood like a bouncer in front of the hastily erected, public comms booth. He’d done the job back when he’d been stationed on Mars, and his skills had been honed through several more battles. He saw how the agitation was growing among the men waiting to use the booth.

When the government had shut down the local nets to contain what was happening with Second Fleet around Mars, that included cutting off the deploying soldiers from their families and loved ones. With all his time away on missions, Coop was used to this. The reservists suddenly called to duty were not, and their inability to do so was affecting morale. It was such a problem that the FOB commander had set up a few shacks with half a dozen comms booths. Two dozen secure, monitored lines were nowhere near enough for the tens of thousands of troops sitting out in Kansas sector, waiting for orders, so it wasn’t improving things much.

They were of a singular use to Coop. It allowed Eve to place a call to Bethesda and see what the hell was being done to protect their unborn child.

“Hey…” one guy finally seemed to have grown some hair on his nuts, but Coop’s focused stare checked him. “…uh, never mind.” He took a few steps back and started to get shit from his friends.

Coop focused his attention back on the group in general. He could have dealt with the guy, and the dozen that came after him, but after that he didn’t know. He, and the rest of his squadron, had been in their MOUNTs for forty-eight hours before the local commander realized the enemy wasn’t going to show up on their doorstep anytime soon. With that realization, the order came down to dismount. They’d rotate through having one MOUNT on the FOB’s QRF, but other than that, they weren’t going to go through the uncomfortable process of synching back up unless missions started coming down from higher.

“About time,” Camila had commented when they stepped out of their armor. “I was getting an itch I couldn’t scratch.”

Coop didn’t reply to that imagery, but he had headed straight over to Eve’s squadron, and together, they’d commandeered the first comms booth they came across.

Finally, a tap on his shoulder indicated Eve was done with the call. “All yours, gentlemen,” Coop nodded to the gathered crowd, and stepped away from the incoming flood of bodies.

Eve waited until they were both a ways off before filling him in. “I was able to get in touch with the on-call doctor and the hospital’s chief of security. The doc couldn’t give me any details about the defense of the campus, but she was able to check up on the baby’s vitals. Everyone looked good, and we’re still a go for all the pre-natal enhancement procedures.”

Coop scoffed at that. He doubted anything would go forward if Earth was attacked. The look he got from her shut him up quick.

“The chief of security had more details on the defensive setup, but he sounded pretty exasperated. Apparently, everyone with enough rank is calling in to discuss the security precautions, and I’ve got to say they look good.” Her statement allowed Coop to release a sigh of relief he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “They’ve got a full battalion digging in around the perimeter. This isn’t some weekend warriors either, this is a solid outfit. I looked them up. If things get hot, it is a priority site for heavy reinforcements, and they have an evac plan with Spyder’s and other transports on site already. If things go sideways, they’ll call someone like us for help, or evacuate the place. Neo-natal is near the top of that list, and I might have dropped a hint that the one marked Berg, the Chief of Naval Intelligence’s granddaughter, might need to be at the top of the list.”

“That’s my girl,” Coop grinned and pressed a kiss to her forehead. That got a few looks from people headed toward the booth, but he didn’t give a shit.

“Now we just need to make sure if they do call for backup, that one of our squadrons gets the call,” she stated, and was already breaking away from him.

He’d leave the convincing to her. If he asked for it, it would come off more as a threat than request. He was better at taking than asking.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 300

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop watched as three soldiers in full battle rattle scurried across the destroyed landscape. They had anti-grav-assist boots, so they hopped over debris piles with ease. They moved with discipline; two moving while one covered them. Coop swept his targeting icon over the two that were bounding forward. His AI calculated range, elevation, and any other variables that would affect his shooting. It even recommended ammo types.

Coop decided to stick with his 10mm plasma rounds. The explosive blast from a three round burst would be enough to fuck up anyone’s day, but such heavy firepower might make the soldier providing cover hesitate. Coop might be able to hurt him with the collateral splash of super-heated plasma. The AI suggested one of the mini-missiles, dialed to anti-infantry specs, which would detonate over the two rushers and shower them with ceramic alloy shrapnel. Their armor couldn’t stand up to that type of firepower, which was overkill, and with no resupply in the near future, Coop would rather waste three rounds. He had thousands of those to spare.

The AI beeped at him when the two rushers were at the apex of their jump over the toppled structural chunks of a former mega scraper that looked like it had taken an energy blast from a battleship in orbit. Coop didn’t need the reminder.

His MOUNT gave a plaintive beep as he pulled the trigger. It was a complete boner killer in the otherwise realistic holographic targeting simulation. Being in the MOUNTS’ womb made it so all external stimuli were supplied to his brain by the armor’s sensors. It made for some freaky real simulations. A hell of a lot better than anything he’d had in basic, or even his LACS. It was totally immersive.

<Watching porn in this thing would be crazy,> he thought with a snicker as the world around him broke down into cubes and dissolved away to be immediately replaced by the massive assembly area.

The ride to the site had been interesting to say the least. A flotilla of Spyders had arrived at the Proving Grounds to pick up the MOUNT squadrons. If someone was trying to keep the ACR a secret, they were doing a horrible job; or, shit had finally escalated to the point it didn’t matter. That was worrisome. People pulling out all the stop meant there was a real chance the people making decisions thought they would lose.

Each Spyder had been configured to carry two MOUNTS. Apparently, the birds were assigned to the ACR, and their sole purpose was to haul the MOUNTS around. You could see it in the tweaks to their design. The troop/cargo bay in the back and been extended to take up even more space. It needed to fit the massive bulk of the MOUNTS. Two cradles had been attached to the center area to secure the armor, while two rows of seats fit their crews. There was very limited room to carry extra ammo, parts, or other necessary equipment. Coop saw that as a problem.

Currently, each squadron had four Spyders attached to it. Two for the MOUNTS, and two for their gear and extra personnel. So, if one bird went down, you either lost all your gear, or the warfighting machines that were the entire purpose of the ACR. Coop would rather do one MOUNT and all their gear per Spyder, but he was just a lowly WO1. Someone with gold stripes had looked at this already and made the decision, which left him stuffed into the back of a Spyder with Camilla. At least the ride was entertaining.

They’d been on the ground for six hours doing nothing other than running simulations and provide security for the impromptu FOB. Their targeting systems kept a constant eye on the endless stream of Spyders, cargo haulers, and even private air-cars that were filtering into the area. They were somewhere in the middle of the North American sector, so they could see for kilometers and kilometers across the flat plains. Personally, Coop didn’t care about that, he kept his eyes on the sky.

With his optics, he caught the glint of First Fleet elements in orbit. They didn’t look like they were doing much, but they were, <At least I sure as shit hope they are.> There was still a comms blackout for all civilian networks. MILNET wasn’t much better, but Coop knew Second Fleet was engaged. He just didn’t know how it was going. No news is good news was not true of military engagements. If things were going to shit, elements needed to be able to alter their planning, issue FRAGOs, and all-around fix whatever got other people killed. On the flip side, if your people were kicking ass, commanders tended to relay that to boost morale. So, not knowing how the fleet was doing, plus not hearing anything from the chain of command, had the hairs on Coop’s neck sticking up.

“LT, anything?” he sent their fearless leader, who was standing like a statue near the front gate to this place. It wasn’t much of a front gate, just some road barriers hurriedly thrown into a serpentine pattern so no one could drive straight in with a bomb and blow everything to hell.

“Nothing, Cooper,” she shot back over TACCOM. “Your sync has dropped one percent since you finished that sim. Run another one.”

<Them and this fucking sync rate,> Coop grumbled to himself. Apparently, the MOUNTS’ performance was tied directly to how well he was in sync with it. It made sense, if he was out of sync then his movements, targeting, and ability to fight would be shit, but still, commanders were constantly watching the rate and assigning out exercises to increase it.

<It’ll get better with time,> Coop whined as he took one last look up in to the gray skies of middle America.

Doing all of this in a controlled environment to maximize their combat effectiveness had gone right out the window. Another casualty of real-world shit derailing Gold’s engineers carefully laid plans.

<Roll with it,> the LT’s sim arrived, and Coop immersed himself back into the fake world of destruction.

It was only a matter of time until he had to deal with the real thing.

 

***

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: Orbit, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

It’s impossible to have complete silence on a bridge or in the CIC. There’s always inbound and outbound comms traffic, the constant updates of firing solutions, the chatter of spacers, and the beeps, hums, and clicks of the AI’s mainframes doing any number of standard onboard operations. Today, everything made of flesh and bones sat in stunned silence.

“Fuckin’ hell,” the chief petty officer at an operation console finally broke the silence.

Ben glared at the man serving as his senior NCO, but he couldn’t fault him. He could barely understand what he’d just witnessed. Mars was still dark. No transmissions were coming out, and no one was sure if any were getting in. The same was true of Second Fleet, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t see what was happening.

Powerful optic telescopes on the ground, in orbit around Earth, and from the starships between the planets caught the whole thing. They saw the fleet’s drones turn on them, and harass them like stubborn hornets. They damaged several ships, but the wounds were minor for ADM Blackbird’s overall fleet. What came next was not.

The enemy vessels, larger than anything Ben had ever seen mankind wield, charged the fleet at accelerations that ships that size should not be able to achieve. To her credit, the ADM positioned her ships perfectly. They played off the enemy’s tactic, which was to charge toward Mars in orderly fashion: one right after the other. That didn’t make sense, but neither did their acceleration rates and ability to hack the Commonwealth’s ships. Ben didn’t know if it was overconfidence or greater tactical acumen that drove the enemy’s decision making, but the ADM reacted how any reasonable human would.

She encircled her ships around the enemy’s axis of advance, creating a funneled corridor for them to drive through while she bombarded them from every angle. It left her ships more vulnerable since they didn’t have overlapping defensive fire, but the world was an imperfect place. The enemy was driving for Mars, and it was the fleet’s job to protect it. She would be able to put every gun in her arsenal on target, and that gave her the best chance of winning.

The CPO at the operation’s station, an old salt who’d served nearly six decades in uniform, called it shooting fish in a barrel. He couldn’t explain the analogy, where he heard it, or its historical significance, but it sounded perfectly straightforward to Ben. He envisioned fish in some sort of barrel, and someone unloading on it with a rifle. The fish had nowhere to run, and were blasted to pieces. That is what everyone expected of the enemy ships entering the fleet’s kill zone.

The first enemy ships entered the funnel and were engaged by the second fleet’s updated assault carriers and battleships. Instead of being millions of kilometers apart, they were mere tens of thousands. Full broadsides of missiles and energy weapon batteries opened up on the enemy. The overlapping explosions and beams of light blotted out everything. Officers screamed for reports out of instinct, but there was nothing else to gather information. All they could do was wait for the explosions to fade and the wreckage to clear before trying to reconstruct what happened.

Things started to become clearer as the firing slackened off, which wasn’t a good sign. Soon, their optics could made out expanding clouds of debris, and replied on that to explain what the hell they were seeing. The AIs ran the visuals through their programs to explain that the enemy ships made it deep into the fleet’s formation before being stopped. Plasma trails and energy readings suggested the enemy relied solely on those weapons platforms; no missiles. The debris of ships to the rear of second fleet’s formation, the unshielded ships, were the most dispersed, suggesting they were the first to die. The shielded ships lasted longer, but as more and more enemy ships entered the funnel, they identified the threats and reacted. Increased fire on the assault carriers and handful of battleships led to their inevitable destruction. The AI’s pinged the probable location of Little Big Horn as an expanding cloud of gas and debris. Calculations suggested few crews, if any, survived, and even if they did, no rescue operations could be enacted.

Second Fleet was gone. With the upgraded ships gone, and unshielded parts of the formation crumbled quickly. The whole engagement lasted less than ten minutes. Ten minutes for nearly a whole fleet to be blotted out of existence. The cruiser and destroyer squadrons remaining were in full retreat. Thankfully, it seemed the enemy was allowing them the chance while focusing on the orbital cannons. Without the ability to maneuver, and no fleet to shield them, they were quickly snuffed out.

Despite destruction everywhere they looked, it seemed the enemy didn’t escape unscathed. Imagery was updated to see enemy ships with gaping holes strewn throughout them. Whoever they were, their vessels were still susceptible to the laws of physics. The AIs were constantly updating the figures, but a dozen of the vessels they could see looked to be critically damaged. Another ten were moderately damaged and they were falling back from the main fleet. Another twenty-six looked to be gone all together: ADM Blackbird’s parting gift. A few showed minor damage, but continued on, and would likely undergo repairs before First Fleet met them in battle.

<If we meet them,> Ben conceded. The enemy had taken out Second Fleet while suffering twenty one percent casualties; with only seventeen percent being taken out of the fight for the foreseeable future. With those odds, the Commonwealth would need four more fleets to destroy the attackers. They had only one.

<Technically there are three,> Ben corrected, but as far as he knew, the Blockies were still saying this was some sort of imperialist trick, and the Euros were content to keep their heads in the sand. Maybe they would get into the fight if the enemy turned its sights on Earth…maybe.

“Attention, this is your captain speaking,” the overhead announced with a tone. “Um…” the man stumbled at first. “We have new orders to make the fleet ready to engage the enemy. Stand ready men. This is what we trained for.” The message cut out.

“That was inspirational,” Ben mumbled, unable to keep his mouth shut.

“Lieutenant Commander,” the XO chastised him with a glare. “See me in…”

Horrible beeping started to sound everywhere. Ben immediately looked down to his station. MALCON WARNNG flashed in black letters with diagonal yellow slashes through them just as the holo-tank at the center of the operations section flickered.

“I’ve lost STRATNET,” the chief was already on it.

“TACCOM is down,” yelled an LT over in communications.

Now, Ben understood why Second Fleet had looked so sluggish and disorganized.

“Shit,” he didn’t care if the XO heard him this time.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 299

ADM Janet Blackbird

Location: Orbit, Mars, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“We’ve got another squadron coming around!” the tactical officer yelled from his pit on Biggie’s bridge.

“Guns?”

“On it, ma’am,” the CMDR whose job had just become infinitely more complicated replied as he barked orders at his crews throughout the ship.

“Helm, alter course to zero-three-zero, close that gap!” ADM Blackbird ordered as she read the holo-tank.

<This is madness,> she thought for the hundredth time as Biggie’s railguns opened up on a swarm of drones trying to break through her wedge.

Everything about centuries of naval combat had been turned on its head. The missiles that put millions of kilometers between her and her enemy were now useless. Everything was close up and personal. <And instead of worrying about the two hundred plus juggernauts bearing down on us, I’ve got to bust my ass just to defeat our own drones.>

The twelve thousand drones had come screaming down on her fleet, but they were only a distraction. They were a bee facing off against an elephant, but they could still sting. An electrical panel burst on the side of the bridge and sparks showered the astrogation section. She didn’t even yell as the damage control party sprang into action to contain the damage and reroute anything pertinent.

Biggie and the other assault carrier had taken the first haymaker of the attack. Twelve thousand missiles were only marginally reduced by the point defense laser, railguns, and fire-and-forget countermissiles of the big ship’s final defensive envelope. Biggie had taken nine hundred and sixty four missiles right in the face. If not for their shields they would be an expanding cloud of debris. Instead, they were only battered. The hit had hurt, but all the assault carriers were still in the fight. A few hundred warheads had gotten through their defense wedges to the more vulnerable ships in the rear. That was the enemy’s true target all along. Once those big ships got in close to tangle with the battleships, they’d be able to pick them apart quick. They wanted to be able to focus on the upgraded models, and not worry about the guns from the others, which despite no shielding, were just as dangerous.

The frustration continued to build for Second Fleet as the drones swept in close and fired off their second and last volley. That had done the most damage, with a couple battleships, and a dozen battlecruisers being knocked out of the fight. None had been destroyed outright, but they were retreating back under the umbrella of the orbital laser cannon’s continuous fire.

Now, the ADM was focused on eliminating the drones and keeping them from breaking through her lines. Those who got through could wreak havoc in her rear, and even endanger the cannons.

“Railguns thirteen through sixteen offline,” the gunnery officer relayed, “but it looks like we got them.” An exhale of relief emanated from the bridge crew as they got a moment to regroup.

The ADM didn’t share in the relief. She was busy swiping and scrolling through the holo-tank and surveying the chaotic reports coming in. Biggie’s defenses were down by twenty-five percent, and she hadn’t even engaged the enemy yet. That was beyond frustrating. They were also coming up on the eight million kilometer mark. This was the outer envelope of Commonwealth capitol missiles. There was no telling what their uninvited guests were capable of, but her crews needed to be at their sharpest now.

The crew realized it too, and they were collectively holding their breaths as the massive warships crossed the invisible point in space. When nothing happened, there was another exhale of relief. This time the ADM joined in.

“Stay sharp, everyone,” she didn’t let up on them though. “Keep updating those targeting solutions. We’re going to have to wait until they’re in close to light them up. Comms, get in touch with the other wedges and get me a full SITREP of the damage they’ve sustained. I know we aren’t the only ones with a bloody nose for our own drones.”

All the wedges were operating autonomously due to the communications issue, but she still needed to know the status of her fleet if she needed to rearrange her assets. She was more of a traffic cop now, moving people into position, than the commander of a fleet.

“Enemy fleet is accelerating, ma’am!” the tactical OIC announced as the ADM watched the numbers climb on the holo-tank. Soon, the large enemy ships were pulling much high accelerations than anything the Commonwealth had.

<They’re going to smash right through us,> her jaw dropped as the countdown clock on the holo-tank adjusted down. <They’re going to bash right through our wedges, strafe us, destroy the unshielded vessels, and then take out the orbital cannons.> She didn’t want to know what they would do after that. She didn’t know what these people’s motivations were, but she had to consider that the bombardment of Mars was imminent.

She didn’t have long to think, but the situation was clear. It was Second Fleet’s mission to protect Mars, and that’s what they would do. Her hands shot to the holo-tank. She took in the enemy’s course, her own fleet’s disposition, and least-time approaches to Mars.

“Comms, buckle up because you’re about to have the most hectic twelve minutes of your life,” she passed the package of orders to the officer, and the man’s jaw nearly hit the console. He didn’t argue though, he got his team to work getting the information out.

<It’s the best I can do,> the ADM thought to herself as she sat back down and watched her bridge crew get to work. This was the moment where their training would pay off, or they’d doom millions of people down on Mars.

She had faith in her people, but everything about this enemy scared the shit out of her.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

{Audio and visual diagnostics are green. Initiative activation sequence,} the AI stated as more and more code flowed across Coop’s vision. He’d stopped looking a while ago. It was giving him a headache.

{Cooper, when it activates, I want you to take it slow,} the LT warned ominously.

<That gives me the warm and fuzzies,> Coop grunted and took a few deep breaths to prepare himself. The last initiation had been very unpleasant.

He waited…and waited…and waited…

{Is it always going to take this long?} he asked, {Because the enemy could have launched a rocket right up my ass all in the time it took me to see and hear. It’s piss pour situational awareness.}

{Your initial sync is the longest, and being monitored by a small army of techs right now,} the LT ignored his bitching. {You’re almost there…}

Suddenly, the world appeared, like someone had pulled off a blindfold, and Coop understood why the LT wanted him to take it slow. The incoming data was a little overwhelming, not to mention he was three times his normal size.

{Hold tight. Your AI is going to cycle through spectrums,} Camilla advised. Sure enough, the AI went through IR, night vision, half a dozen other sensors, and finished with Coop’s favorite: millimeter wave radar. The pulse that went out for his suit on that diagnostic gave him unparalleled detail of his surroundings.

It showed him that the 40 LACS of the battalion were not lined up in neat lines. They were gathered in their squadrons, and presumably, their commanders were going through the movement orders. He turned his head to look for Eve, and his MOUNT staggered to the side.

“Easy,” the LT’s voice announced over the external speakers. Her MOUNT caught his before it could fall. The grating of metal-on-metal turned human and machine heads in their direction, but Camilla waved them off. “That’s why I want you to take things slow.”

A private link appeared in his vision, and it opened when his eyes hovered over it. It was a squadron-only channel, and his AI asked him if he really wanted to accept. He did, and the LT’s face, along with Camilla’s, suddenly appeared on the face of their MOUNTS.

“I know, trippy, right?” Camilla’s smirk was as big as a normal man’s torso. “It was the LT’s idea, and a good one. Now, it looks like we’re talking to people and not big metal robots.”

“Let’s lock it up guys,” the LT righted Coop’s MOUNT and Bethesda “Mac” McHenry joined them to complete the squadron. “I’ve got our marching orders.”

“Can anyone march in this thing yet?” Coop felt it was a valid question, and judging by the looks on everyone’s face, he was right.

“We’re being deployed here along with second squadron,” she pinged them with a data packet and Coop opened it. “Our mission is to support the assembly areas where quick reaction forces are being established to get to where things are popping off. We’re to guard them against ground attack and airborne threat.”

“If we’re dealing with airborne threats that means the navy has shit the bed. What are we going to do that five hundred battleships can’t?” Again, Coop felt it was a valid question, and this was usually the point in the briefing where they tried to refine a shitty plan and make it survivable.

“We’ll follow our orders, Cooper. If they blow us to hell from orbit, then at least we won’t have to hear you bitching anymore.” The LT’s joke got a lot of laughs.

Even Coop chuckled a little, but it was one of those chuckles a person did when they knew they were about to get fucked and couldn’t do anything about it. Better to laugh awkwardly then think about how they were about to drown in the shit.

“Air lift will be here within the hour. Until then, we’re going to zero and target these weapon’s systems. Head over to the far side of the bay…”

“Wait, we aren’t going to live fire them?” Coop interrupted.

If she was tired of Coop, the LT didn’t let it show. “That’s all we’ve got time for, and we don’t want to waste any ammo. There is no telling when we’ll get resupply, so every round counts.”

“The first time we’re going to fire live ammunition is in anger?” Coop asked, just to be clear.

“Yes, Cooper,” the LT’s tone sounded tired, and Coop realized she thought this was just as stupid as he did. “The Gold Tech civvies think computer simulations will be good enough to get us up a few more synch points, and ready to fight.

“Well, I’m glad some civilian engineers, who built something that shoves me into a little ball, think we don’t actually need to shoot to be qualified to shoot. I feel much better now.”

No one said anything this time, as they all focused on their steps toward the rear of the hangar. They looked like a bunch of babies, tentatively taking their first steps and afraid to fall on their face.

<This is going to go well. I feel bad for those fuckers trying to attack Earth,> even in his own head the mock bravado fell flat. <We’re so screwed.>

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Two Worlds – Chapter 298

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“You’re late,” CMDR Snow stood like a disappointed parent; with his arms crossed and an accusatory glare as the large lift opened up into the ACR’s maintenance bay.

Eve didn’t say anything, which was the smart move, but Coop was having a shitty day, and his response just naturally flowed out. “Sorry, sir. We were deep in the shit.”

The CMDR looked momentarily confused. Being “in the shit” usually meant a firefight for combat grunts like them, but the ACR’s OIC would know if any ground combat had commenced in his AO. In this instance, Coop meant that they’d literally been in shit.

The boat ride out of the PHA had been awful, and Coop still wasn’t sure the craft met the definition of a boat. It was some rusted aluminum with an outboard engine that whined like a tortured child if you went over ten kilometers an hour. The only coverage it had from the drone patrols flying over the PHA was a piece of old, badly-sized cammo-netting held up by four rickety sticks. They nearly snapped in two from the light gusts of wind coming off the lake, and Coop was positive they wouldn’t make it back to shore without getting spotted, but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that the boat sat low in the water, so when it went crashing through the swell water sometimes spilled into the craft. At one point, Coop had been ankle deep in brown shit-water. Thus…being in the shit.

The CMDR’s momentary confusion morphed into a frown as he put two and two together along with his sense of smell. “Your squadron commanders will deal with you missing formation, but we don’t have time to screw around. We’ve got enemy incoming, so suit up.”

The last two words sent an immediate tingle through Coop’s nuts. Despite the CMDR’s brisk tone, this was actually a big deal. None of the MOUNT pilots had been inside their MOUNT except for preventative maintenance and familiarization. None of the forty war machines had taken a single step from where they’d been stationed since familiarization week when the pilots were still in the recruiting class. Coop’s mind scanned through his memories of the upcoming training schedule and knew it was another five days before they were going to the range; to range and zero their weapons.

“Wait, enemy incoming?” he asked as his train of thought came to a screeching halt.

He thought back to the reservists swarming the PHA. The maglev they’d jumped on south of the PHA had been busting with soldiers as well. Reservists were being deployed to predetermined positions, and active duty personnel on leave were on their way back to their duty stations. All leaves and passes had been canceled, but no one on the train knew why. Even the LCDR Eve had been able to corner had been given little in terms of orders other than get to a rally point and await further instructions.

It wasn’t just the soldiers. The net was down, and the media programs were on a blackout. No one was talking to anyone outside of secure channels, which despite their authorizations, Eve had not been able to gain access to without CMDR Snow’s approval.

“Beijing decided to stop fucking around and finish this once and for all? Or did the Windsor’s show up for payback?” Coop asked as the CMDR started to walk away. He had to have better things to do then entertain two WOs.

“Neither,” the man snapped over his shoulder. “Unknown enemy is currently engaged with Second Fleet over Mars. Things aren’t looking good. We’re deploying to areas of strategic importance throughout the planet and First Fleet. Your squadron commanders have more details.” And with those parting words he was gone.

<Unknown enemy,> that sent a shiver down Coop’s spine. The worst thing for any infantryman was running into an unknown situation without any idea what the hell was going on. He hoped LT Hillview had a more detailed OPORDR in the works.

He turned to Eve to ask a question, but his girlfriend had gone bone white. “What,” he instinctually started looking her over for injury, and when he found nothing, he shifted his attention to any external threats.

“The baby,” the two words came out a whisper, and it was like someone dropped a lead ball in his gut. He completely forgot about the defenseless little girl they’d left in the neonatal care center at Bethesda.

“It’s going to be ok,” he stated automatically with no idea if that was true. “The best thing we can do is get suited up and kill whoever these fuckers are. Then we’ll go and check on her.” He gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze, which seemed to shake her out of it.

She nodded and hustled off to where the rest her squadron was already suited up. Coop headed to the other side of the bay where third squadron was getting ready.

{Cooper, what the hell man. If I wanted you to fuck us, I would have bent over and spread my cheeks for you!} Camilla’s voice violently assaulted his mind as he reached his MOUNT.

{Yeah, because I totally expected to get marooned in the PHA six hundred klicks away.} He shot back as the crew chief came up with a specialized set of CMUs. The PO1 ignored his temporary nudity as the new set went on. Apparently, it was supposed to keep him more in synch with the MOUNT, but they hadn’t tested or even tried on the new tech before.

<Shit must be going sideways quick,> Coop could put two and two together. <We never asked how Second Fleet was doing?>

{That’s right, take it off baby,} Camilla cat called from four meters up, and Coop gave her the finger for good measure.

{Lock it up you two,} the LT finally stepped in. {Cooper, it’s time to get your head in the game. We’ve got to synch you with the MOUNT. I’ll walk you through the check list.}

Coop nodded as he took the hold of some of his MOUNTS open ports and climbed up into the cockpit. Cockpit might be what the techs called it, but the pilots had come to refer to it as the womb, or, for the more fatalistic members of the ACR: the tomb. It was a snug, dark space directly in the center, and most heavily armored part of the MOUNT. Each womb was specifically sized for the pilot down to the millimeter. Coop wiggled himself in as the LT started initiating the checklist.

The first dozen steps involved the ground crew who buzzed all over the armor like worker bees. Coop provided visual confirmation of the completion of certain tasks as the crew loaded up the MOUNT with ordinance. He watched as the crew forced in canister after canister of 10mm ammo into the rotating sections of his armor where they would spin like an old-fashioned six shooter to align with his mission-specific selection. He didn’t have a great view of the hover-lift used to transport the two dozen, half-meter long rounds he could fire from the next-gen accelerator opposite his graviton cannon. They all looked identical to the shield buster Mr. Gold had previewed, but were the matte gray of traditional, super-dense metal. He could tell when they were loaded due to the weight shift, which told him just how dense those rounds were.

<And this is why we train before going into battle. We need to be familiar with these nuances,> Coop grumbled as the next thing the hover-lift delivered was his three-meter broadsword.

They’d gotten zero training on using the big weapon, which was slated for the end of their familiarization, right before they shipped out to their formalized duty stations. Coop was glad he had some blade-on-blade training from his HI days, but there was definitely a difference between the attached blades and a separate sword.

<Adapt and overcome,> he thought, but still planned on grumbling to his squadron-mates about. <At least it counterbalances those monster rounds,> he looked on the bright side.

Next came the swatter ammo by the thousands for the two defensive hallmark weapons that would keep the MOUNT safe from incoming fire. Lastly, the crew crawled around the front to load the micro missiles. Unlike during the familiarization, Coop hadn’t noticed how close those destructive warheads were to his womb. That was more than a little unsettling. His crew chief must have seen the look on his face because he winked.

“No worries, boss man. The tomb has an extra shield around it in case anyone of these bad boys cooks off. But after all the demo testing we’ve done that almost never happens,” his thick accent made the serious statement sound nonchalant.

“Wait…what do you mean ‘almost never’,” Coop yelled after the man, as he crawled down the MOUNT and gave its calf a pat.

“All clear. Button him up.”

With the ordinance steps of the checklist complete the center of the mech started to inch closed, while at the same time repositioning the womb.

{Wait…what the hell,} he called out as the womb began to change all around him and forced his body into a different position.

{Relax, Cooper. We didn’t get to this yet in training, but it’s what is supposed to happen.} The LT counseled as the womb transformed from a snug, human-impression, into basically a ball with Coop curled up in the middle.

He could move his arms and legs some, but he couldn’t fully extend. <How the fuck am I supposed to fight like this?> There were no HUDs or anything that he could see.

{Stay still, Cooper,} the LT ordered. {Your sync is being initiated.}

Suddenly, the complete darkness of the womb was shattered by a blinding light. Coop screamed as his eyes burned in their sockets. His brain felt like it was on fire, and then it was immediately extinguished to be replaced by a sensation of falling.

{Hang in there, Coop,} Camilla encouraged. {It doesn’t last long.}

The freefall he was in came to an abrupt stop which left him reeling. He felt like a night after a bender and sex marathon with Eve, minus any helpful electrolytes. A metallic taste filled his mouth and he gagged and tried to spit.

{Don’t fight it. That’s a feeding and water tube. You’ll get used to it being there. Your synch rate is at eighty-eight percent. Hopefully it’ll climb into the nineties as you get used to the armor, but it meets the eighty-five percent combat rating. Now, Cooper, I want you to slowly open your eyes.}

He didn’t want to. Bright lights or anything swirling was going to make him puke, but he knew he had to. Slowly he cracked an eye lid and blackness with a blinking cursor at the top right of his vision was all he saw.

{Cooper, initiate diagnostic Alpha-One, and initiation sequence Alpha-Two,} the LT ordered.

<How?> Coop thought, but just thinking the sequences made text fly across his vision. He couldn’t even keep up with the coding, and after only a few seconds he got back a green ‘good-to-go’ and felt the MOUNT begin to rumble.

{Core ignition…optimal performance detected…good morning Warrant Officer One Mark Cooper, code name Ballboy.} A pleasant female voice he didn’t recognize announced in his mind.

{Who the fuck are you?} He now had a good idea why they were supposed to take baby steps in their training to get their MOUNTS up and running.

{I am your Battle AI, Warrant Officer One Mark Cooper. Please designate me as you see fit. I am here to help you with all of your war fighting needs and to allow you to kill the enemies of the United Commonwealth of Colonies with extreme prejudice.}

<That’s not freaky at all,> Coop kept that thought to himself.

{Lieutenant?} Coop asked, uncertain about what he should do next, or what was going on in general. This was not what had gone on with his LACS V2 of V4 rigs.

{Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered, Coop,} both the LT and Camilla answered. {Things are about to get interesting.}

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Two Worlds – Chapter 297

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The small group made their way out of the maglev station and down to the PHA Administration Building. The place looked like a beehive that had just been kicked. Everyone seemed to be on a mission, and by the shouting going on, everyone thought their mission was more important than everyone else’s. The group stuck to the anonymity of the stairwell as much as they could. They emerged into the packed main-floor foyer and Hailey, who was in the lead, skidded to a stop. About a dozen men and women in reservist CMUs looked up from what they were doing at the recent arrivals.

It looked like the SGT in charge of the small detail was about to say something when Eve stepped out in front of everyone. If her active duty CMUs and black stripe didn’t convey authority, her tone of voice sure as shit did. “What the hell are you looking at SGT?” she stalked toward him, and literally made him almost trip over a weapons crate as he backpedaled. “Why isn’t that crate locked?” she continued as she kicked over the unlatched crate and weapons toppled out. “Regs say these are all to be locked tight unless an armed guard is present. Is there an armed guard here, because I don’t see one.” She swiveled her head pretending to scan while giving Coop a “keep moving” gesture behind her back.

“Let’s go,” Coop took Hailey by the elbow and guided her along the wall. There was a single side door directly ahead that would take them out into the main courtyard. She shrugged off his help after a few steps, but allowed him to lead the way.

“It’s not rocket science, sergeant!” Eve yelled behind them as they reached the door. “I don’t give a shit if it’s hot in here! You aren’t going to think it’s hot when I grab one of these weapons out of an open crate and beat you to death with…” the closing door cut off her tirade.

“Where to?” Coop asked as he took in the courtyard.

There were more reserve troops milling around, and a quartet of armored vehicles sitting in front of the building. They were track vehicles, without modern anti-grav, but the 40mm cannon mounted on the front would still get the job done. The question was, what job needed doing? He’d been present for more than one riot as a Rat, and they’d never rolled out light armor before. Armored troop carriers full of cops in riot gear…yes; but never old military gear.

A nearby rumbling echoed down the wide boulevard leading to the administration building, and Coop caught sight of another half-dozen LAVs rolling up to create an armored perimeter.

<Where’s the riot?>Coop thought as he looked around for the surging mob of Rats who were here to bitch about their miserable lives. Except…there was no one in sight.

“Coop,” Hailey pulled on his shoulder and broke his attention from the approaching vehicles. “This way,” she directed him away from the LAVs and toward the side of the building where several alleys branched off.

Coop had some not too pleasant memories of alleys off a government building from not too long ago. He remembered Rats high and out of their mind. He remembered Spyders going down. He remembered splattering a man’s brains on the walls of an alley as a torrent of bodies tried to rise up from the sewers and overrun his team’s position. For all of that, he’d been in LACS armor. Now, he felt naked as they moved into the alley where a car was idling.

It was a clunker, but when most people in the PHA didn’t have a vehicle, this thing was worth its weight in gold, which was why two armed guards were watching over it. The car was shitty enough not to draw attention from the reservists or cops, but nice enough for anyone with PHA street-smarts to know not to fuck with whoever was inside it. Coop guessed it was Hailey’s idea to drive them out of there, which was a shitty idea. They’d never make it passed the checkpoints. The PHA was on lockdown.

Eve joined them a minute later, and together, she and Coop took up most of the back seat. An unlucky PFH goon was shoved up against the window on Coop’s left so tightly he’d never be able to get his gun up in time if Coop needed to dispose of him. Hailey on the other hand took the comparatively spacious front seat, where she could easily draw on them. The driver took off, bottoming out on a nearby speedbump because of the increased weight in the back seat. He headed west.

“Ahhh,” Coop nodded as he caught up with the plan. The brown sludge of Lake Erie was not nearly as tightly patrolled as the roads in and out of the PHA.

“Yep, we’ve got a boat to take us down the coast and then a car to take you to the nearest mag-lev station,” Hailey smirked.

“How long?” Eve kept her eyes on Hailey since she was the only threat.

“Should be a few hours before you can make the nearest station.”

“But that’s too late. We’ll miss formation,” Eve’s fingers dug into the faux-leather arm rest.

“Not my problem,” Hailey shrugged.

“You little . . .” Eve glared.

“We’re getting out of here, which is a lot better than we were doing ten minutes ago,” Coop put a calming hand on Eve’s tense shoulder. “If the Commander couldn’t get us transport then he’s going to have to deal with the fact we might not be able to meet his time hack.”

Eve was still pissed, but no guns had been drawn, or punches thrown, so he took it as a win. They were on their way, and would get where they were going eventually. He just hoped the mask he’d bought back at the station worked. The lake smelled like a giant toilet, and being on it for an hour or more was going to be a literal shit storm if he had nothing to breath but rotten ass.

<Things could be worse.>

 

***

 

ADM Janet Blackbird

Location: Orbit, Mars, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“…MANEUVERS!” the ADM finished yelling just as the screen blossomed with energy signatures and missile launches.

A tally of incoming missiles scrolled up all the way to twelve thousand on the right side of the holo-tank as their preprogrammed guidance systems, designed to be used against the Blockie and Windsor’s capital ships, went to work against the Commonwealth formations.

While the missile launch made sense, the energy attack didn’t. The drones were small, designed to dog-fight enemy drones in space, atmosphere, and if they were lucky enough, to get within close range to harass capital ships until railguns or point defense eventually killed them. Despite their small size, their armaments were heavy. Their missile bays were modular to meet the mission’s objectives, and for this one the ADM had ordered them loaded with the larger missiles able to take the fight to the huge enemy ships. That meant they only had a few shots in their internal magazines. As far as she was concerned, more missiles in the tubes didn’t amount to much when they couldn’t even scratch the paint.

However, energy weapons were pretty straight forward. Despite the drones packing a solid punch from something as small as them, that punch wasn’t nearly enough to travel over six million kilometers and have anything left to hurt Biggie or any of the other assault carriers and battleships making up the shielded front of the wedges.

<Even an ensign fresh out of the academy knows that,> Blackbird frowned as the energy beams dissipated over the next eighteen seconds into a light breeze of particles that didn’t even rustle their shields.

<Anyone who knows the drone’s specs knows that, and everyone knows them. At least . . . every human knows them.> The realization hit her harder than losing her fleet’s entire drone compliment. She was willing to put the weird ship design and unorthodox tactical movement doctrine to something new the Windsor’s were rolling out. God knew they had enough surprised up their sleeves. But not knowing basic energy weapons degradation over such a large distance was just too much to be a coincidence.

She probably should have seen it earlier, but had been waiting for more and more evidence to present itself. It was the wrong type of mindset to have in the middle of a battle this lopsided, and the delay in her acknowledging what was really going on was going to cost her fleet a pound of flesh. Probably more. <Stupid…so stupid,> she chided herself.

“Comms, get me a priority channel to headquarters. This isn’t the Blockies or Windsor’s. This is someone else.” The bustle of a warship bridge in the middle of combat operations ceased at her statement, but it quickly picked back up again. No one had time to stop. The countdown clock to twelve thousand missiles hitting them was ticking down. “Comms?” she turned to the CMDR and his team in their pit next to her raised station.

“Sorry, ma’am. I don’t…” he cut off with a panicked look. More MALCON warnings flashed across his screens.

“TACCOM is compromised!” she yelled out. “All stations switch to manual operations.”

The command would normally elicit a groan during a drill, but no one complained this time. With the flip of a switch the communications OIC sat down at a terminal and started typing out her message. That message would be transmitted through a hardline to an array of tight-beam laser emitters throughout the ship. Those emitters would fire of the message to receiver panels mounted on hulls of nearby ships or land-based arrays. The message would then be transmitted over hardline to the other ships’ bridges where it would appear in their holo-tanks. Nothing in the process was wireless or capable of being intercepted, unless the enemy was between the laser emitters and the receiver panels. It was the modern-day equivalent of semaphore, and as such, there was a programmed shorthand to speed up the communications process, but it was still extremely slow compared to TACCOM and STRATNET data processing. Even worse, the old-school systems weren’t integrated with the new IOR tech, even in the upgraded ships. It was a critical oversight the ADM needed to bring up to the refit team’s attention.

<If we survive that long,> doubt reared its ugly head in her mind.

The minutes ticked by as the confirmation of her orders trickled back. Line of sight issues were making things even more difficult as sometimes her orders would have to be transmitted ship to ship along a daisy chain before the flanks of formation got the information. It was hard to imagine how anyone used to competently fight wars without adequate communications capabilities.

“Enemy missiles entering outer engagement envelope in three…two…one…” Biggie rumbled as the first countermissiles launched into the void. “Seven-one seconds to interception.”

The incoming missiles internal computers identified the launch and took evasive action of their own. Some attempted to dive under and over the wave of countermissiles. Others started zigzagging through space, while other bunched up to give fewer targets, which would draw less countermissiles onto them, so when they split, the countermissiles couldn’t interdict them all. The ADM waited for her fleet’s countermissiles to disperse and engage the enemy’s evasive tactics…but nothing happened.

“Guns?” she spun to the weapons department that controlled the missile and countermissile batteries. MALCON warnings were flashing on their screens.

“Son of a bitch!” she cursed, not bothering to hide her frustration from the crew.

Whoever these bastards were, they were hamstringing her entire fleet. She was back in the stone ages. They’d taken the drones, she couldn’t effectively pass orders to her people, and now they couldn’t even shoot back. The ADM had zero confidence in her missile and countermissile capabilities after the outer envelope of countermissiles passed harmlessly through the center of the dispersed enemy missiles.

“Don’t waste the missiles,” she ordered when the Gunnery OIC started prepping for a second wave of countermissiles. “Comms, order the wedges to Formation Tortus. We need to close the distance with these bastards to the point where we can just use old fire-and-forget gunnery principles.” No one liked to hear the complete degradation of the fleet’s combat capabilities, but reality didn’t care if you didn’t like it. It was what is was. “Guns start warming up those energy cannons. Things are going to get hot.”

The ADM gripped her chair and watched as twelve thousand missiles continued to barrel toward her formations. The ship’s AIs were still cataloging possibilities and refining results, but if she was the enemy, she’d shoot at the biggest and deadliest opponents first, which meant she would probably see her fair share of those missile barreling directly at Biggie sooner rather than later. Formation Tortus should help that with the battleships on either side of her drawing closer and providing overlapping defensive fields of fire, but her flagship was still going to take a beating.

<The whole fleet will,> she might show her frustration to the crew, but not her wavering confidence. The enemy fleet had the advantage in tonnage and numbers. She just hoped the orbital weapons would be able to give the enemy enough pause to… <I’ve got no idea what I’m hoping will happen,> she sighed. She didn’t even know if those weapons were still operational. She hoped the massive cannons could be manually aimed and fired without too many components that could be hacked.

As far as she could tell, this was a worst-case scenario. First Fleet wasn’t coming to the rescue. They had to protect Earth. Even the other allied fleets in the system wouldn’t come for the same reason. If Second Fleet fell then Mars fell. <At least we’ll make them pay for it.>

A surge of pride refocused her mind on the task at hand. She’d trained these people. Despite having task forces regularly sliced off to be sent away, she still believed Second Fleet was the best because of what she’d trained them to do. She needed them all to trust in that training now so they could send as many of these assholes as possible straight to hell.

<I doubt they’re even have assholes,> she would have chuckled if she wasn’t busy getting her comms OIC to get in touch with the orbital cannons to arrange firing solutions that avoided friendly fire.

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