Two Worlds – Chapter 250

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Coop grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 249

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Coop might not have as much combat experience as the SGM or GYSGT. He didn’t even have as much as Eve, but he sure as shit wasn’t stupid enough to just walk into an unknown location, in the middle of enemy territory, without doing some recon.

When he made it within a few kilometers of Mike’s IOR signal, it became clear the other SRRT member had sought shelter in a small town at the foot of the mountains. Their planned LZ, and current rendezvous, was a similar town to the east, so Coop thought the local population might be sympathetic to the rebel cause.

<I’m not willing to bet my life on that.> He thought as he lay prone about a kilometer away. His camouflage was activated and he was scanning the area with his passive sensors. So far everything seemed to check out.

He’d read the term ‘one horse town’ in a book, or he’d seen it in a holo before, but this town seemed to fit the bill. It was clustered along the only road in and out of the place, and was only a kilometer from outskirt to outskirt. The buildings and homes didn’t extend more than a block or two from the road and they went all the way up to the foot of the nearest mountain. With his Buss’ scope on high magnification, he could just make out the entrance to the mine in the distance.

He checked his IOR readings with what he was seeing with his own two eyes. Judging by that, Mike was holed up near the mine. Coop could make out a few natural terrain features that a V4 could hide in with camouflage, but if Mike had been hiding all day his battery was probably shit now. Among all the other crap the SRRT members were carrying was a portable recharger for their LACS. It would take a day to do the job the cradles on the ship could do in an hour, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Fighting the Windsor’s in his skivvies was not an option. He’d seen how well that worked out for the grunts on New Lancashire.

He watched and waited for a few hours. Night was falling, and the planet’s natural darkness would be the best way to conceal his approach.  Finally, after hours of nothing aside from miners returning home – or to the bar – and no readings from his scans, he contacted Mike.

{I think I have eyes on your location.} He didn’t bother to announce his identity. There was only one person in the area who could be making contact.

{Coop? That You?} Mike replied. He sounded scared to Coop.

<Suck it up, big guy.>

{I’m going to be coming in at your six o’clock. Keep an eye out for anything from your nine to three.} Coop’s plan was to set security, figure out their supply situation, and then start heading to their rendezvous. With Mike’s V4A load, he had twice as much shit to help in their negotiations with the natives.

{I’ll be waiting.} Mike cut the transmission.

Something tugged at Coop’s memory, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Despite everything coming back as all clear, he still felt uneasy. His gut was rumbling, and he felt like he was going to have the shits, which was a natural sign of his paranoia.

<Can’t just leave Mike even if this turns into a shit show. I can just be as prepared as possible.>

Coop wasn’t going to cart all his crap down to the town with him, so he started to strip the gear until he looked like his lean, mean, fighting machine self. He secured the rest with a cammo-net. Someone else would literally have to step on it to find the stash. Since he doubted anyone would be aimlessly roaming these hills at night, he thought the area was secure. Hefting his Buss to his shoulder, he moved out.

Trying to cover three hundred and sixty degrees by yourself was nearly impossible, but Coop had trained for times like these. He used the environment and his surroundings to cut down his profile as much as possible. That, matched with his active camouflage, made him nearly invisible. He crept through the outskirts of town. Despite all that humanity was technologically capable of, he couldn’t fool the family dogs along his path. They barked and jumped against fences as he passed, but he didn’t pay them much attention. It would be wise to eliminate the noise marking his progress, but he wasn’t a monster. He had no problem putting down an asshole human, but killing an innocent animal was the stuff of sociopaths.

As he passed the last fenced plot of land there were several hundred meters of open space between that and the next cover. The next cover was a small depression that Coop was fairly sure Mike was curled up in. It was only meter and a half deep, and was meant more as a drainage ditch for something farther up the hillside, but if Mike came down in this area as unexpectedly as Coop had at the farm, this was the best thing he could find in a pinch.

He took a final look around to make sure the coast was clear before sprinting to his target. It took him only a handful of seconds to slide into the depression like a baseball player sliding into home. He dropped the meter and a half into the ditch, but thanks to his bulk, it barely covered the top of his head.

{Mike I’m here. Ping me.}

{Coop? That you?}

{Of course it’s me. Who the fuck else would it…} the rumbling paranoia in Coop’s stomach suddenly dropped into his asshole. He had to pucker up to avoid the shits. {Ahhh shit.} He groaned just as the space around him was flooded with light.

Now he knew why he’d been feeling uneasy. The transmissions he’d been getting from Mike were identical, as if someone was playing them back to him. Coop would have slapped himself for being such an idiot, but he was too busy bringing his Buss into position to deal with whatever the threat was.

“This is Captain Wright of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines, you are completely surrounded. Throw down your weapons and you will be treated with the same dignity and respect as your captured compatriot. Resist and die.”

<They have Mike. Well there goes our mission.> Coop cursed as he searched for options. Thankfully, his paranoia had led him to prepare for such a situation. Well…not a situation as shitty as this one, but it would have to do.

He patched into a small drone he had flying overhead. It was about the size of a pencil, but the resolution it produced was awesome. The moment he connected and took in the data there was the buzz of automatic weapons fire and the feed went black. Since he was using his IOR to link with the drone, it confirmed to him that the Windsor’s had the ability to track IOR communication. <At least at close ranges,> he added. He’d talked to the Mike from the farm, and the royal marines hadn’t descended on his ass then.

While losing the drone was a blow, it wasn’t unexpected. Battlefield drones tended to not last long in conventional combat, but it served its purpose. He now had a snapshot of the enemy forces arrayed around him.

<Shit,> he mumbled. It didn’t look good.

Captain Wright probably had an over-strength company at his disposal. Coop saw snipers and heavy weapons posted on a perimeter of rooftops. A mortar team looked like it had set up shop behind him on the high ground. He bet that was where the good captain was as well. The rest of the troops held a tight perimeter around Coop to keep him from escaping.

The only bit of good news was that he didn’t see any HI or those god-forsaken mechs anywhere. This was a straight infantry company, and he could work with that. He double-checked his battery, made sure his Buss was good to go, and toggled into his HUD’s main menu.

With the help of the new battlefield AI, he planned his next move. Even if he didn’t have a good picture of where some of the troops were, the AI deduced probabilities with him of positions and troop strengths. He knew he couldn’t take the projections as gospel, but they were better than blind guesswork. After a few minutes of calculations and inputs, he was ready to go.

“This is your final warning!” Captain Wright had been talking all along, but Coop hadn’t been listening. “Surrender now and you will be treated appropriately. If I have to come in there and dig you out then it will not be pretty.”

Coop couldn’t help but chuckle. The Captain was trying to threaten him in his overly proper accent. It didn’t come off as genuine malice, and besides, he was about to ruin the good Captain’s day.

With everything set. He braced himself and hit the execute button. A burst from his IOR sent out the instructions. As expected, the Captain rapid-fired orders to his troops when he detected the transmission, but by then it was already on. A few kilometers away, the cammo-netting was ripped to shreds as the mortar tube Coop had set up as his contingency rapid fired its entire thirty-round magazine. At the same time, Coop’s own 250mm tube spewed out EW and smoke rounds like its life depended on it.

Soon, the area was filled with shouts and confusion as the marines lost their electronic locks on Coop’s position. They also had trouble seeing with their own eyes, so they did the logical thing, and fired at his last known position. Only a few of the snipers and heavy weapons had a good angle on him from their elevated position, which was why they were hit by the incoming mortar rounds first.

While all of this was happening, Coop was hunched over and sprinting for his life down the drainage ditch. His AI had computed the best path to take to avoid most of the marine’s arsenal, and it hypothesized he had a thirty-three percent chance of making it out alive.

<Better than nothing.> He breathed heavily as rounds started to fly all around him. The heavy weapons got off a few shots before the mortars collapsed the roofs they were stationed on, and turned the houses into raging infernos.

Coop saw their plasma-tipped rounds splatter explosively against his shield. It dropped precipitously when those big rounds hit, but he was still good to go. He was still running when the ground bucked beneath him and sent him sprawling forward. The marine’s mortars were finally getting in the game and they were peppering the area around where he had been hiding. He was a solid hundred meters away now, and out of the kill zone, but that didn’t stop the earth’s complaining from throwing him on his face. He didn’t let it slow him down. He couldn’t. It was move or die.

After executing complicated avoidance programs, Coop’s own 250mm shells started to rain down on the enemy mortar position. His AI informed him the Captain had deployed swatters, but it was clear he only had one in his tool kit. He was using it to protect himself and his most powerful weapon, but that left the rest of his men exposed.

Now, a hundred and fifty meters from his original position, Coop stopped, went prone, and fired off five quick missiles from his launcher. The rounds streaked straight down the ditch to his original position before arching up, away, and toward the unprotected troops. The Captain’s mortar’s retargeted on where the missiles had ached up, and by then Coop was already sprinting again and putting more distance between himself and where the enemy thought he was. The heavy weapons on the rooftop tried to save their own asses as the missiles dove toward them. Two were successful and two weren’t. More houses on the edge of the one-horse town collapsed as powerful explosives obliterated the structural supports.

Coop had no idea if the hits were killing the enemy troops, since they probably had some shielding, but he didn’t have to kill them to take them out of the fight. He just needed to rob them of the high ground. Regular rounds were starting to chew up the ground around the ditch, but he didn’t pay them any attention. The ones that made contact with his shield were a simple inconvenience. They wouldn’t even penetrate his armor.

At close to three hundred and twenty five meters from his original position, he popped out of the ditch and sprinted toward the town. The Captain was still blind firing his mortars into the smoky, EW-filled haze and didn’t have a lock on him. Coop knew this part was critical, so he poured on the speed.

He was halfway across the open ground when someone spotted him. The rounds that leapt out to meet him were regular and they harmlessly impacted his shield. He didn’t know another heavy weapon had acquired him until a three-round burst of heavy ordinary slammed into his side. His shield held…barely, and his HUD flashed a proximity alert of incoming indirect fire. Coop did what he was trained to do: he activated the ES feature to bond his armor tighter together, he made himself as small a target as possible, and he put all the power he could behind a final leap. He was only twenty meters from the nearest house, so he said a quick prayer to whatever war god that was listening to help him to safety.

His prayer was answered…kind of. He was being hit from three different directions at once. Small arms fire from in front, heavy rounds meant to degrade shields and pierce armor from the flank, and finally the mortars that tried to take him up the ass. The ‘kind of’ part was him being just at the edge of the kill zone when the mortar’s hit. The Captain’s fire mission was danger close, but Coop counted on him being a good officer and not wanting to drop fire on his own troops. He rode the blast, taking damage along the way as it blew out the front wall of the building. It didn’t collapse that structure, or he’d be totally fucked. Instead, he was only partially fucked.

“Owww,” he groaned as he rolled over and tried to get to his feet. His shield was reading zero and his battery had dropped to fifty percent. His side was numb, which meant something had gotten through the armor and damaged his nerves, or something had gotten through and the painkillers were dulling those nerves. He hoped for the latter. He struggled to his feet and felt an uncomfortable twinge in his lower back. Thankfully, a combat cocktail was dumped into his system by the AI because he was not alone. It registered a full squad of marines getting to their feet as well.

<Blades hot,> Coop reacted on autopilot. his nano-blade sang through the air as he started to cut down the unlucky men. Two had lost limbs before the others figured out what was going on. They started firing blindly into the confines of the house. Dust, debris, and smoke obscured everything, but even then, they still scored some hits. Luckily, they just didn’t hit any damaged segments, and the scales did their job. In fact, their blind firing led Coop to them. He downed half the squad before they started running out of the missing front wall.

The drugged-up killer in Coop wanted to chase them and end this fight, but that was suicide. He needed to get out of here before the Captain didn’t have anything holding him back from dropping the house on top of him. He still turned back toward the gaping hole and fired off another wave of micro-missiles to cover his retreat. The AI was using old data at this point, but the spread would keep the marines busy.

While they dealt with that, Coop snuck out the opposite side of the building and hauled ass back to his stash with the camouflage activated. It didn’t serve much point in a fight because it was easy to trace back the origin of his fire, but even only partially operational after the damage it took during the battle, it helped him get to the stash

Unfortunately, another squad of royal marines had been dispatched to deal with the off-site mortars after they wreaked havoc on the perimeter. It was more unfortunate for them than Coop when he snuck up on them and started putting his blade through their guts. Unlike the last squad, this one had nowhere to run. A couple still managed to escape because Coop needed to grab his shit and bounce.

He couldn’t take everything. It would take ten minutes to layer everything like when leaving Argo, so he only took the necessities: extra ammo, the recharger, portable shield generator, basically anything that would prolong a fight against these assholes. He wasn’t even able to get everything before his HUD squawked about incoming ordinance. He still got his ass singed as he escaped, and the rest of the gear was thoroughly wrecked.

The combat drugs kept him going for another five clicks before he reached his threshold. He knew the crash was coming, and he needed to find to find cover and concealment quickly. The mountain was full of little nooks and crannies, and he found one that would work just as the fatigue caught up with him.

He passed out with thoughts of what to do next on his mind. <Is the rendezvous compromised? Did they capture the rebel leaders with the intel Mike had on him? Should I rescue Mike? Where the hell is everyone else? Is Eve ok?>

He passed out without answers.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 248

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Coop crouched down below the stalks and sighed. He thought they were corn, but he wasn’t sure. This was the first time he’d been on an actual farm or seen food that wasn’t an end product of a PHA ration or military chef.  He wondered if all the rumors about farmers’ daughters being easy were true.  <Focus!> he chided himself. He was in enemy territory and he shouldn’t be thinking about food and women. He needed to get to work. <I need to get back to Eve…and the rest of the team.>

He activated his IOR, and his military-level master authorizations got him into every civilian system within radius. He needed to build a picture of where he was so he could figure out how to get from Point A to Point B without getting killed. <I should have paid better attention during the briefing,> he reluctantly realized as he puzzled together information.

Harper’s Junction was a standard planet. There was nothing special about it. It was technically a junction system, but it was a junction system at the end of the line, which didn’t lead anywhere interesting. It didn’t export any important Commonwealth products, so it held no special value to the government. Its main export, if you could call the pittance an export, was raw material from its asteroid belt, but the refineries had been scuttled by whatever company owned it when the Windsor’s took the system. Essentially, Harper’s Junction was pretty much the same as Earth had been before spreading to the stars: self-sustaining, somewhat isolated, and with mindsets that matched those circumstances.

<Thirty million isolationists.> Coop grumbled. <The million-dollar question is: how did the Windsor’s win them over if these people don’t like foreigners?> Coop wondered, but was pretty sure he already knew the answer. <They made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.>

He shook his head and stopped thinking about the macro-political situation. He needed to get back to thinking about his survival. From what he could gather from the civilian systems, he was in the middle of a large farming complex in the capitol city’s agricultural district. The district was a crescent moon shape covering thousands of square kilometers to the city’s west. West was the direction he needed to head, away from the city. He needed to make it out of the farms, into the small foothills before the western mountains that formed the spine of the small continent, and into the small mining towns that dotted that area. That was where the resistance to the Windsor’s occupation was headquartered. Not in any major city.

He looked in front of him where he could barely see the five-thousand-meter peaks in the distance. Covering that distance was somewhat daunting, but he didn’t have much choice. He quickly checked his suit’s battery to find it was still at one hundred percent before starting out.

He didn’t get far. The program running the farmland must have initiated some alert when he arrived. It was probably meant to identify vermin and other pests that infested the fields; definitely not HI troopers.  He’d only made it half a kilometer when a wheeled vehicle popped over a nearby hill. He was already moving in a crouched position, so it didn’t see him right away. Unfortunately, his massive armor made a trail a blind man could follow.

<Shit.> He patched into some of the roadway cameras to see the vehicle come to a halt.

It kicked up a cloud of dust that obscured everything until a gust of wind cleared the area. What was left were two young men, a young woman, and an older man.

<Farmer’s daughter!> Coop couldn’t help but laugh, but it was cut short when the woman hefted a weapon onto her shoulder. <What is…?>

His IOR caught a picture of the weapon, referenced it against the neural net’s database, and popped a 3-D hologram into Coop’s vision. What the woman had was a two hundred-year-old riot gun. Coop pulled up the specs to see what he was dealing with, and he quickly realized he had nothing to worry about. The weapon was supposed to cover a large area with projectile pellets that weren’t even EM accelerated. It was a great tool to kill unwanted rodents, but it wouldn’t even scratch his LACS polymorphic paint.

<Duh,> Coop almost face palmed at the obvious. He could get out of all this by activating his armor’s stealth features. He felt a little stupid for not thinking of it sooner, but in his defense, his old V2 didn’t have the capability, and his last V4 had been disabled by aliens before he really got to use it. <The only problem is my trail.> He’d have to take a risk there, but it was doable.

He had audio from the road’s sensors, and the old man, the father to the younger three, was giving them instructions on where to check. Coop knew it was going to be suspicious as hell when they found the huge path he’d trudged through their field, but there wasn’t anything he could do now. The only thing he could do was make sure he wasn’t at the end of that path.

He hit the feature on his HUD that activated his camouflage and disappeared from view. Then he bent his legs, waited for a second when they weren’t looking in his direction, and jumped. He aimed for a shallow arc because the last thing he wanted was to be exposed for too long. Stealth or no stealth, he didn’t like the idea of being in the open air any longer than necessary. Thankfully, the camouflage worked as advertised. The group of farmers didn’t even look over as Coop sailed a good two hundred meters before falling back to the ground. His mass made landing an inevitably raucous experience, but he executed a combat role and tried to destroy as little of the crop as possible. With that completed, he went silent. He looked, listened, and felt through his network of sensors for any sign that the farmers were closing in.

“Aw hell!” He heard the yell a few hundred meters away, which meant they’d found his original trail.

Coop didn’t need to draw a weapon. He could dispense of the farmers with his bare hands, but the last thing he needed to do was draw more attention to the area. If a family went missing, the mother would call the authorities, who would probably end up informing Windsor’s agents, and that would bring a shit storm down on Coop. On top of failing his mission, he could be captured.

The best thing was for the farmers to write it off as an animal wandering through their field, or a piece of debris falling from orbit after the space battle weeks ago. Once they left, Coop could be on his way.

The thought had barely left Coop’s brain when the farmer’s daughter stepped into the small clearing his landing had made. <Shit.> Thankfully, his LACS was a machine and could stand perfectly still when ordered to. Not even a stalk swayed because of him.

She turned three hundred and sixty degrees with her weapon at the ready. She scanned the area for signs of life, and was confused when she didn’t find anything.

<She’s cute,> Coop passed the time by studying her.

She had disheveled, straw-colored hair with freckles that really popped on her light skin. She was probably around Coop’s age, but she looked a decade older. Despite time and technology, farming was still a rough business: early mornings, late nights, and a lot of tough, manual work. That showed in the daughter’s face and physique. She looked strong, and more than capable of dealing with something eating her corn. The problem was, she wasn’t ready for Coop.

The confusion didn’t leave her face as she called for her father. The man and his sons appeared a few minutes later to scout the same area. It was a tense few minutes, but they eventually concluded what Coop wanted them to. The farmer stated to his kids that some debris must have fallen from orbit and skipped across the field. That’s why they weren’t seeing animal tracks or signs of the crop being eaten. The daughter rightfully pointed out that there would be more damage if something hit the ground at terminal velocity and started skipping across the field, but that father waved her off. He wanted to keep things simple, and possibly avoid bringing any more attention to his property from the new planetary rulers. The capitol city nearby might be under the Windsor’s control, but that didn’t mean everyone was happy about it. Most people probably just wanted to be left alone.

With the issue decided, the farmers left, but the girl gave the clearing one last glance over her shoulder before departing. Coop waited another few minutes before he started moving.

<That was close.> He’d never gone to SERE school, something the SGM was going to rectify when there was time. As far as Coop was concerned, real world experience was going to teach him more than some scenario.

He deactivated his camouflage because it ate at his battery, and started moving again. He had a long way to go. It took him the rest of the day to get out of the agricultural district, but he didn’t have to evade any more farmers. He made sure to get into the crop’s systems before he entered a field, disable them as he passed, and then reactivate them when he was clear.

He was passing between two small hills, paralleling the road, but still under cover, when his IOR lit up with an incoming message.

<About time.> Coop hit accept and his IOR decoded the feed to ensure it was friendly. When it did, Mike’s voice popped into his head.

{Coop? That you? Shit, man, I thought I was the only one who made it.}

{Someone fucked up,} Coop replied. {I’m headed to the rendezvous, what is your location.}

{I was dropped into a cave with no entrance or exit. I had to blast my way out. A couple locals showed up, but I was able to evade them.}  It sounded nearly identical to what happened to Coop. If he lived through this, he was going to have a word with Gold and Aiko. They were the ones who fucked up.

There was a soft ping and Mike’s location illuminated on his HUD. Coop still had a trek to get to his teammate, but it was on the way to the rendezvous.

{Just sit tight and I’ll meet you there.} Coop radioed.

{I’ll be waiting.} Mike cut the line and Coop felt better about his chances. After all, he didn’t want to walk into a meeting with these local resistance leaders alone.

<Hey, the rest of my team didn’t make it, but you’ve got me and a few supplies to fight your rebellion,> wasn’t the best opening line of a negotiation. Coop was sure they would view him as the lesser of two evils, the evil they knew, but still evil nonetheless.

That was for future Coop to worry about. Right now, he needed to get to Mike’s position and avoid detection by the locals and Windsor’s in the process.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 247

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Argo, United Commonwealth of Colonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 246

Benjamin Gold

Location: Argo, United Commonwealth of Colonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 244

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thurgood Station, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Rise and shine!” Something solid hit Coop in the ass and woke him from a deep sleep.

“Wha…” Coop looked up through bleary eyes and wiped some drool from the corner of his mouth. He looked down his backside and saw a red handprint glowing against his pale skin. “Oww!” he protested without meaning it.

The groan after he rolled over had nothing to do with Eve’s playful smack. Coop was sore. Everything from his balls to his pecs had a well-used feel to them. Eve had been…demanding to say the least.

<Speak of the devil.> Coop looked over toward the small bathroom nook in the cheap motel room. Eve had already showered before rousing him, and she was standing in front of the mirror in nothing but a towel. The towel was only covering her hair. <God, what a great ass.>

Eve must have seen him looking because she smiled. “Down boy,” she chided when she saw his anatomical reaction to her fabulous gluteus.

“We’ve got time for one more,” Coop tried his best to sound seductive and not desperate.

The previous evening had been a whirlwind. The fancy dinner had gotten him the deal of a lifetime, and his defense of her honor at the dive bar had sealed it. He’d only had to trounce half a dozen of the Station’s hardier fellows before everyone got the picture. Then he bought them all drinks and mended that fence. Things had gotten a little more interesting when a few marines had stumbled into the establishment at the end of a self-imposed bar crawl. They took one look at Eve through their beer goggles and wanted to chat her up. Coop had taken the moment of peace after establishing diplomatic relations with the locals to take a piss. He came out of the head to the marines hitting on his girl.

The brawl that had ensured ate ten grand in damage from his hundred grand chip, but he’d taught those grunts a lesson. Hell, even a few of the locals joined in. The only one who didn’t raise a finger was Eve. She just stood at the bar and sipped her drink while her eyes did all the talking. When they finally busted through the door of the hotel, half disrobed, and with each other’s tongues doing the tango, she did a lot more than raise just a finger.

“Don’t give me those puppy dog eyes,” Eve shook her finger at him and turned her attention back to the mirror. “Check the time.”

Coop brought up his IOR to see they had just over an hour to report back to Argo. With the time it would take to get through the station’s congestion they’d have to leave soon, which meant Coop had to act fast if he wanted to get some before got back to the ship. Once onboard, it would be much harder to get some quality time together.

Coop opened his mouth, with his best line locked and loaded, but his eyes were drawn to something just below the perfect curve of her ass. “What’s that?” Coop slid off the bed to investigate.

“Not now,” Eve batted behind her as Coop got down for a better look.

“No, seriously.” Now that Coop was closer he could clearly see it was an exit wound. “What happened?” The change in his tone must have alerted Eve he wasn’t just looking to get his dick wet.

“I told you already,” she resumed studying herself in the mirror. Coop didn’t know what she was doing to an already perfect body, but he knew better than to ask. “I was wounded on the Yangon operation.”

“Right,” Coop tried his best to recall the story, but he’d been in murky waters with her back then and was pretty sure they’d been arguing about something. “When you saved Sullivan?”

“Yeah.” Eve let out a sigh. “A round got through my LACS when I had to fight my way out of a PDC supply depot. It’s no biggie.” There was suddenly a self-conscious tone in her reply. “I got healed up back onboard, but the medical personnel were stretched thin after a major offensive. I told the nurse just to get me patched up and I’d deal with the rest later. Then I got ordered to report to New Savannah and the SRRT. After then it was the attack and the anti-terrorism ops, and then we went off to the Gold City. Once I have time I’ll get to a clinic and get it taken care of.”

“Taken care of?” Coop was mesmerized by the star-shaped patch of scar tissue. “Why? This is so hot.” He gently pressed his lips to her wound.

He felt Eve’s whole-body shiver in response. “Oh,” the surprised word slipped through her lips. “Well, I guess we have time.” She turned to face him. “Let’s go, soldier.” She gestured Coop to his feet, grabbed him, and led him back to the bed. She didn’t grab him by the hand, she went for something much more essential to the boning process.

In the end, their tight deadline to get back to Argo wasn’t an issue. The congestion in the main concourse wasn’t nearly as bad as yesterday, and they made good time. They had a whole ten minutes to spare when they confronted the SGM at the airlock.

“Berg, Cooper,” the SGM mentally checked them off the list on his IOR. “Cutting it a little close.”

“Sergeant Major,” the SGM looked a little surprised when Eve replied to what was clearly a rhetorical question. “Per Fleet Regulation 1165, and UCMJ Article 134, I am informing you that Sergeant Cooper and I are engaged in a sexual relationship. The relationship in question is within the bounds of regulation and maintains good order and discipline among our unit.” Eve stated calmly and clearly.

“I’m the judge of whether or not it affects the good order and discipline of the team or it calls into question your objectivity when executing mission priorities.” The SGM replied casually without any bite or judgment in his tone.

“If it helps Sergeant Major,” Coop piped up, “Eve and I had sex back after Basic and it has not affected our performance on any of the missions we’ve served together on.”

“Cooper,” the SGM sighed. “That information doesn’t help or hurt you, nor should it be shared judging by the expression on Sergeant Berg’s face.” The SGM gave Coop a look of pity. “But considering everything I’m going to move Sergeant Berg to Bravo Team effective immediately so there is no chance of questioning either of your objectivity. Sergeant Cooper, please inform Sergeant Enders that he is now with Alpha, and then get him up to speed. You’re dismissed.”

“Thank you, Sergeant Major,” Eve replied respectfully before heading for the airlock. Coop followed behind her.

Once they’d passed into the space between the boarding tube between the station and the ship, Eve rounded on him. “Don’t share our private business with the Senior NCOs and Officers, Mark!” She seethed. It was the first time Coop had ever heard her use his first name, which told him he’d seriously stepped in it.

“I thought it would help show our objectivity.” Coop still felt the need to defend himself.

“You’re lucky the Sergeant Major didn’t throw us in the brig,” Eve spun on her heel and walked away from him.

“But you said our relationship was kosher!” Coop yelled after her.

“That was my interpretation of the regs,” Eve replied. “My interpretation doesn’t matter. It is what the OIC thinks that matters. He has discretion, but he’ll take the Sergeant Major’s advice.” Eve pushed through the next airlock to Argo, and Coop wisely kept his mouth shut and let her have the last word.

Mike met them before they hit grunt country. “I got an alert to check the roster. I’m with alpha now, and the guard rotation got switched up in the last minute.”

It was the SRRT team’s job to have a permanent guard posted on the armory, bridge, and Splitstream compartment at all times. It was a nice break when they were ferrying all the diplomats, but it would be a pain now that it was just the eight team members, and Coop was officially in a relationship.

He checked the roster and groaned. The SGM might have blessed their relationship, but that didn’t mean he was giving them time to spend together. From a preliminary glance at the training and guard schedules, Coop would be lucky to see Eve at all this cruise.

<Good thing we have that last quickie.> Coop would have to file that away in his spank bank because he knew he’d be fiddling the flesh flute for the near future.

 

***

 

Queen Josephina I

Location: Harper’s Center, Barrowsford, Star Kingdom of Windsor

“Presenting Her Royal Highness, Her Majesty the Queen, Josephina the First, Ruler of Barrowsford!” A man called out over the loud speaker as Josephina descended the steps of her shuttle. This was her first time setting foot on her new planet as Queen, and she wanted to make a big deal of it.

At the same time, she couldn’t make it seem like she was making a big deal out of it. The planet was fresh off a hostile takeover. Her fleet had grievously wounded the system defense force, destroyed the Commonwealth garrison, and bloodied the local militia. With their antiquated weapons and armor, they stood no chance against even the small amount of lancers she’d brought with her. The left over military forces were still standoffish toward her, and several cities around the world weren’t recognizing the annexation of Harper’s Junction, now Barrowsford, by the newly christened Empire of Windsor.

It was the local population that had backed her, and was ensuring her peaceful rule of much of the planet without further bloodshed. That local population were not fans of big hoopla for the few at the expense of the many. They’d had enough of that from corporate overlords and their elected puppets.

So, Josephina had to make sure she walked a thin line with everything she did until she really got her claws into the planet. Step One was to make this whole welcome home ceremony for the new queen look very candid.

“You are too kind,” she made sure to smile at the local they’d hired and paid handsomely for his service and silence afterward.

A line of her soldiers, in their gleaming red armor, flanked her on either side, but the area in front of her was packed with civilians. They looked unsure what they should be doing, but many had clapped and cheered when she stepped off the shuttle. She took that as a good sign.

“I bring good tidings from the Empress. She has bestowed upon me the title, but more importantly, that title’s responsibility of being your steward. She has vowed to me, as I vow to you, that we will govern you wiser, better, and more justly than the Commonwealth. We want to ensure that every citizen of Barrowsford has access to education, healthcare, and job opportunities. Our empire is expanding, and it needs every one of us to pull our weight. In return, that empire will care for us and our families. This I swear to you!”

The end of her impromptu, but carefully crafted speech was met with much greater applause than her arrival. She took it all in stride as she smiled and waved at the gathered commoners. She turned her back and headed up the stairs to the lavished governor’s mansion, which was now the royal palace. She’d made sure the shuttles containing her personal belongings landed out of sight of the crowd.

Her staff’s first job was to redecorate the palace and make it suitable to entertain members of the government that was being formed by the commoners. She would need to manage their radical ideas carefully. When people had a real taste of freedom for the first time, they tended to go a little crazy, and when push came to shove, she needed to remind them that they were commoners. She was the Queen, they all served the Empress, and the Empire was at war with the very people who had previously oppressed them.

She knew deep down, her dynasty on Barrowsford would never share the complete devotion that Victoria’s people felt for her. It wasn’t engrained in their new commoners…yet. Medical care was one of the top priorities. Children needed proper, updated vaccinations, and her team of doctors were making sure to slip in a little genetic coding. The side effects of the viral injection would be minor, and explained as a side effect to worried parents, but they would instill new genetic code into the young population’s growing bodies. By the time they became adults they would be habitually more loyal to the monarchy than any previous generation.

Josephina was playing the long game with her new home, and she was playing for keeps.

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Bonus Chapter – Two Worlds – Chapter 243

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thurgood Station, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Heads turned as Coop and Eve walked hand-in-hand down Thurgood Station’s main concourse. The place was packed with the flow of humanity, but despite that, a small bubble had formed around them. It was probably because they were the two biggest people in sight, which obviously pointed to them being military, and not average military at that. Despite that being the obvious reason, Coop liked to think it was because they were the best-looking people in the concourse and people were respecting that. It was a pipe dream, but to him, everything since Eve took his arm felt like a dream.

He’d thought long and hard about his feelings for Eve. She wasn’t his first love. That title belonged to Hailey, although he hesitated to call it love. Fuck buddies with a mutual interest in survival was a better description, but if he really sat down and thought about it there might have been something deeper. Still, even a stubborn, wool-headed man like Coop could see that Hailey’s own career aspirations, and their violent reunion, weren’t conducive to rekindling a relationship.

His own reunion with Eve at the start of their SRRT tour together wasn’t all sunshine and daisies, but things had thawed since then. They’d found their rhythm just like back in Basic. Coop knew a little more now. He wasn’t a stupid PHA Rat anymore, but she still had a leg up on him with her Ranger training. He was more than happy to play her right-hand man. It was familiar, and they worked well together.

In Basic, that had led to the best weekend of his life. He still had wet dreams about it. Sometimes, before he’d found Aiko, and had to settle for some fair-priced hooker, he imagined Eve’s face and body writhing beneath him. Hookers didn’t care whose name he shouted out during orgasm as long as he paid.

Needless to say, he had high hopes for the evening, but he also wondered what Eve’s intentions were. Past Coop wouldn’t have given two shits what the girl wanted as long as he got his dick wet, but Present Coop had evolved a little. He’d fought fellow PHA Rats, pirates, hulking mechs, and even alien squids. He was by no means changing his cavaliering ways, but he’d taken enough lives to know it was short. Even with cellular rejuvenation therapies, all it took was one well-placed bullet to punch your time card. Because of that experience, he was a firm believer of living life to the fullest, and right now that meant trying to get back into Eve Berg’s panties. Although, judging by the dress, she might not be wearing any.

He nearly walked into a vending machine when that thought crossed his mind. He tried to play it off like nothing, but her sharp eyes caught it, and the way they twinkled made him think she knew what he was thinking.

<What are you up to?> Coop wondered. Not that it deterred him one bit. In fact, it made this game they were playing that much more exciting.

Coop had another ten minutes to think over Eve’s motivations before they took a lift up to the higher levels. Like most space stations, the level you were on was a status symbol. All the machinery that allowed humans to function in space was in the bowels of the station, and the people that needed to fix that stuff tended to live close by. People who tended to manage the people who fixed things lived farther away along with people who’d moved to the station to sell goods and services. Some services took the newcomers closer to the machinery, and others farther away. Inevitably, the rich and powerful ended up in the rarified, artificial atmosphere with breathtaking views of the cosmos, while the people who kept the gears turning didn’t see anything but artificial light.

The restaurant Coop had selected was near the top, because a hundred grand was a small price to pay to make it with Eve. Her eyes widened slightly as they exited the lift at their destination, which was a good thing. The hostess at the door gave them a glance to see if they passed muster. Neither of them were shoddily dressed, but they didn’t exactly scream blue-in-the-eye either. She scanned Coop’s GIC for his reservation, and seemed slightly surprised that it beeped green back at her. He’d had to put a deposit down for the reservation, and he smiled smugly back at her when she took them to their seats.

Out of habit, Coop scanned the rooms for threats, opportunities, exits, and developed a strategy for multiple scenarios before he even sat down. Like a gentleman, he held out Eve’s chair and let her sit first. It made him feel like he was living in a holo-drama.

“Wipe the grin off your face,” Eve’s reprimand was robbed of its power by the smile tugging at her lips.

“Yes, Boss Lady,” Coop fell back on the title he’d given her in Basic, and her smile fully formed.

He took his own seat and the wine guy arrived. He had a fancy name that Coop couldn’t pronounce, but wine guy summed up his duties nicely. Coop let Eve order the bottle because he knew nothing about it. He thought the guy would leave and give them a chance to talk, but he stayed by the table until another man appeared with the requested bottle. Two sip-sized portions were poured into actual-glass cups and provided to them. She swirled it around, sniffed it, and took the time to savor the taste before nodding her approval. Coop just threw his back and nodded. It was a bit sharper than he liked, but he was used to cheap beer at strip clubs. Tonight was about Eve. Whatever she wanted, she got.

“So,” Eve placed her napkin in her lap and turned her gaze on him. “You’re really pulling out all the stops, Coop. You trying to get lucky?” She cut right to the point.

“You wound me,” he replied mockingly and placed his hand over his injured heart. “Can’t I take you out to a nice dinner?”

“No,” she replied matter-of-factly. “You never do anything for free. You’re hoping to get laid. I’d respect you more if you came out and said it.”

<Seems like a trap.> Coop bought himself a second to think by taking a sip of water.

“Of course I want to fuck you. Who wouldn’t? And having done so before, I can guarantee that I won’t be the only one having a good time.” He laid it all out on the table.

“Honesty from Mark Cooper. I never thought I’d see that day.” Eve’s return smile said volumes about his chances.

<Holy shit, this might actually work.> He could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“On the other hand, we are eating dinner on a hundred-grand chip that you got for doing your job. A chip you should never have accepted in the first place, and a chip you told me you were going to share with the rest of the team.” With a few words, all of his hopes and dreams came tumbling down. It must have showed on his face, because Eve let out a short laugh. “Relax, Coop. You’re secret is safe with me as long as it doesn’t harm anyone or endanger the mission or the team.”

“They’ll never even know about it,” Coop guaranteed, as new life was breathed into his chances.

The waiter arrived and put a hold on the conversation until they’d ordered. There was a five-course, pre-prepared meal available, and that was something their enhanced metabolisms would healthily embrace.

It was a steady stream of good food and conversation from then on. He even forgot about boning her until the dessert course. Surprisingly enough, she was the one who brought it up over some type of cheesecake that Coop swore had drugs baked into the crust.

“I’ve booked a private room at a cheap motel for the night,” Eve stated conversationally as if she was talking about the weather. “It’s not quite a by-the-hour establishment, but its close. I don’t plan on doing much sleeping, so it’ll do.”

Coop nearly choked on the delicious dessert and had to smack himself in the chest to dislodge the creamy content. “Um…ok.” He didn’t know what else to say.

Eve primly put down her fork like a queen and regarded Coop with a serious expression. “I want to propose an arrangement with you.”

“Ok. I’m listening.” He nearly threw his own utensil onto the table. Something told him this was important.

“I have certain physical needs that I can’t pretend I don’t have around you anymore.” She said the words confidently, but it was as close as Coop had ever heard to her saying he made her horny. “Due to our enhancements it is difficult to be with other people.”

<Translation: she likes it rough and doesn’t want to snap some poor sap’s dick off.> Coop translated, but continued to pay attention.

“My proposition is simple. We fuck when and where we want. I will make the Sergeant Major aware of our relationship, but since we are the same rank it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Coop knew the LCDR was screwing the LT in his free time, so there shouldn’t be anything stopping him and Eve.

“I have a few conditions though.” Her eyes grew serious. She’d dangled the carrot, but the threat of the stick was there as well. “First, when we are together, it’s just you and me. I don’t want you checking out the petty officer’s ass unless you’re planning to tap mine. Got it.”

“Got it.” Coop would never pass up that opportunity.

“Second, and this is for your benefit, this is only when we’re stationed together. When we inevitably get transferred, we’re both free to screw around with anyone else we want. I’m not looking for marriage and a family; only fun and the occasional stress fuck after things go to shit on a mission and we make it back alive.”

“Understood,” Coop nodded.

<Oh my god, this is the perfect woman,> he thought as Eve laid out the best-case relationship.

“Lastly, I don’t want any more of this shit from you.” She waved her hand at Coop.

“What, the dinner?” Now he was confused.

“No, taking the money chip from the diplomat. Engaging in shady shit when we’re on planet, or any of the other questionable stuff I know you’re up to. I’m not going to kill my career by being associated with that. Understood?”

Coop hesitated, but then he remembered her thighs wrapped around him in that motel outside Stewart-Benning… “Clear as crystal, Boss Lady,” he replied confidently.

“Good.” She popped the rest of the cheesecake in her mouth and smiled. “Pay the tab and let’s get out of here. I appreciate the effort of a refined meal together, but I need a stiff drink in a dive bar on the lower decks. We might have an agreement, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ply me with liberal amounts of alcohol first, Sergeant.” The way she said his rank sent a thrill through him.

“Your wish is my command.” He signaled the waiter, paid the man, and grabbed Eve by the hand. She giggled a bit at the speed which they left the fancy restaurant, boarded the lift, and headed back down to the lower decks.

Inside the crowded lift, her hand found his quad and gave it a squeeze. It was like being struck by lightning, and he jumped at the sensation. “Sorry.” He apologized to a small man he nearly flattened against the wall in the process. The man just grumbled and got off at the first opportunity.

They got off shortly after on a deck where the smell of cooked meat, spilled beer, and artificial fragrances trying to overtake working-men’s body odor was the norm. Coop selected the first bar he could find and pushed open the old-fashioned door. The chatter in the place nearly stopped when Coop and Eve entered, and all eyes went to her.

<This’ll be fun,> he scowled at everyone and headed right for the bar.

“You’re doing this on purpose,” he whispered to her as the set themselves up and got their drinks. A line of men already looked like they were working up the courage to come talk to her.

Eve just smiled in return.

<Challenge accepted,> he thought. She was testing him again, trying to see if he was worthy in the oldest way known to mankind: by seeing if he was the alpha among the gathered males.

Coop cracked his knuckles and neck in anticipation. The men in the bar were a rough bunch, who’d had enough to drink to think it was a good idea to take on someone his height and weight.

<Here we go.> Coop intercepted a man’s hand as it went to pinch Eve’s ass. Eve would have taken the guy’s head off before he got within a meter of her, but she was putting her honor in his hands. <This is going to be a long night.> But he knew the reward was worth it.

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