Two Worlds – Chapter 223

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Correct.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 222

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop pulled the hatch closed behind him. It was a hatch not a door on the space station above the moon. They used Navy terms here instead of ground pounder terminology, but Coop wasn’t concerned with that. He took a deep breath and focused on his PAD. BLOCKED NUMBER was displayed in big red letters, but that wasn’t a surprise. If Coop thought back on the situation, it seemed Hailey, or the people Hailey worked for, had been able to take out the Liberation Movement terrorists and capture others before the Commonwealth or local police. Then, they’d been able to transport those people across the city while avoiding surveillance. Whoever they were, they obviously didn’t cut corners when it came to operational security.

Coop let the breath out slowly before hitting the accept button on the PAD. The call was voice only, so no 3-D holo of the person’s head appeared from the PAD’s surface. Instead, he was met with silence. He waited for a good ten seconds on the chance it might be a bad connection, but it wasn’t.

“Hello?” Coop finally asked.

“Coop.” The one word response brought back a flood of memories. The foremost being that the tone Hailey was using told him she was suspicious. At least this time is wasn’t her being suspicious that he was sleeping around with another girl. This time, he had no idea what she was thinking.

Coop wouldn’t lie to himself and say he wasn’t a little nervous. After all, this was a girl he’d boned on the regular for years, and maybe even had feelings for. He cared about her well-being, and if he was being honest, it hurt a bit that the first thing she did when they saw each other was kick him in the jejunum.

“Hailey,” he stated back to her. Then, after a moment, “I think we might have gotten off on the wrong foot…with that foot being the one that kicked me over the banister.” Coop couldn’t stop from sounding a little pissed. He’d come really close to smashing his head on the edge of the fountain. He might have his skeletal structure reinforced, but that still might have cracked his skull open.

Hailey didn’t say anything back. She seemed like she was waiting for something.

“But that’s water under the bridge,” Coop continued. “Sorry about your club. I didn’t want things to get messy, but your people started shooting and it just kind of devolved from that.” Coop shrugged even though she couldn’t see it.

“Devolved? That’s a pretty big word for you Coop. What have they been teaching you in the military?”

Coop bristled slightly at that because he used to be able to tell when she was giving him a good-natured ribbing. Now, he wasn’t quite sure.

“The better question is what have they been teaching you? I know what type of place that was, and judging by the room you just came out of, I have a good idea what you were doing.” Coop retorted, his voice a little on the cold side.

He immediately regretted it. He was supposed to be opening up a dialogue to get information about the Liberation Movement. Instead, he was criticizing her life choices.

“Sorry,” he genuinely apologized. “What you do is your business and yours alone. I just wanted to call you so we could meet up and talk.”

“Talk about what?”

Coop couldn’t tell if there was interest in her tone or not, so he assumed the best and pushed forward. “We’ve got reports that some of your people might have picked up some people that we were looking for. I’m sure you’ve heard about the terrorist attack at the base. It’s pretty nasty stuff, and we’re just after the perpetrators.”

“Whose we? Are you working for the cops?” There wasn’t any judgment in the tone. If this was a year and a half ago, she would have called him a snitching bastard, but things had changed.

“I’m working with the planetary authorities to help find the people who did this, and as far as I know, that does not include you.” Coop knew he couldn’t tell her about the SRRT, but he also knew it was important to relay that he wasn’t after her or her organization.

Hailey was quiet for a long time; too quiet. He was pretty sure he was on mute and she was talking to her bosses. Technically, Coop should be talking with his bosses too, but the SGM’s philosophy was to get from Point A to Point B while staying within the commander’s intent. The path was up to the individual soldier to decide and take. In other words, he wasn’t going to micromanage them like children. Everyone here was a big boy or girl who knew their shit. They were battle tested. He trusted them to make the right call. Unfortunately, in Coop’s experience, many people, especially officers, didn’t share the SGM’s attitude on leadership. The S2 was probably one of those people, but Coop had better things to do than constantly loop the LCDR in on this. If the woman was doing her job correctly, she was probably already listening in on the call. Now that Coop thought about it, calls were supposed to be restricted inside certain sections of the Pooler Anchorage.

“We can meet.” Hailey finally came back on the line. “One hour…Wright Square…under Landing Point…come alone.” The line went dead and Coop started moving.

A shuttle ride from Pooler down to Savannah City took at least thirty minutes in transit time. Coop needed to get a ride first and then get to Wright Square. The Square was one of the largest in the capitol city. Hundreds of thousands passed through it every day, and that large transportation circle that passed around it made for easy ingress and egress. As far as public places went, it would be a nightmare for the Commonwealth to try to catch Hailey, and with only an hour to prep, no one would be in place in time.

All of that flashed through Coop’s head as he threw open the door to the briefing room. The retired tankers were having a good laugh that was abruptly cut off by the sound of metal striking metal. “We’re on it sixty.” Coop informed the SGM before taking off down the narrow hallway toward the shuttle bay.

“Make a hole people!” The SGM and Eve were right on Coop’s ass, and surprisingly people made a hole.

Coop thought it had less to do with the SGM yelling than people seeing three very large human beings barreling in their direction. <Whatever works.> Coop wasn’t thinking about those people anyway. He was thinking of what he was going to say.

 

***

 

Fifty seven minutes later Coop stepped foot onto the winding sidewalks of Wright Square. The original Wright Square back on Earth’s Savannah was maybe a tenth of the size of the remake. Instead of a monument to the Creek leader Tomochichi, this Wright Square had a statue commemorating the landing of the first settlers on the planet. Coop didn’t pay the big colony ship with a stream of people disembarking much attention; even if it was his final destination. He was focused on the area around him.

Like he suspected, it was a surveillance clusterfuck. There were easily a few thousand people jostling to get where they were going. It was 16:57, just before the end of the work day, and soon this whole place would be packed shoulder to shoulder with commuters.

“Coms check.” Coop subvocalized into the bone mic.

“Good copy,” Eve’s voice replied.

Even if Hailey said come alone there was no way in hell the SGM was going to allow that. Instead, the rest of the SRRT was in place around the park and in overwatch positions. Coop was entering from the north. Eve was sitting on a bench half a kilometer away near the south side exit. She wouldn’t be able to catch Hailey if she ran, but the plan was to form a perimeter and try to box her in. Coop didn’t have a lot of faith in that plan, but at least there was a plan.

“We’ve got you, Cooper. No sweat,” GYSGT Cunningham interjected. She was behind a sniper rifle about a klick away. It was her and the SGM’s responsibility to watch for Hailey and any threats. Sullivan and Hightower were also on perimeter duty, on the east and west sides respectively.

Coop scanned the people around him. He knew what to look for: looking at the hands were the key, and he also monitored for bulges in smartcloth that might indicate a weapon. Lastly, the contact lens he wore was running facial recognition on anyone he wanted to check out further. Despite the technology at his fingertips, it was hard to get a good bead on someone who was just hurrying by to catch transpo home after a long day at work.

<Nice work, Hailey.> He had to give his ex credit where credit was due. Even though she said to come alone, she knew he wouldn’t…just like she wouldn’t.

“I’ve got one.” The GYSGT sent over their net. “They’re three hundred meters at your two o’clock, third story window.”

Coop didn’t look right away. He continued to scan the area like normal and only looked up when he swiveled his head. His contact lens highlighted the hostile in red. It really just highlighted the window in red because as a trained sniper, the guy fired from inside the cover and concealment of the room. Coop just hoped the SGM or GYSGT had a good angle on the guy.

It was only two hundred and fifty meters from the square’s entrance to Landing Point. It took him more than three minutes to get there, so he was technically late. He hoped Hailey would still show. While he waited, he took a seat on one of the benches surrounding the monument and did his best to look inconspicuous. His eyes continued to scan, and updates flowed into his lens as his teammates identified more potential hostiles.

One of the cops patrolling the square stared at him a little too long, but eventually continued on his patrol. Coop’s eyes were on the cop’s back when the bench shifted slightly from additional weight.

“Hello, Coop.” Hailey was sitting next to him, close enough to touch, and pointing a snub-nosed pistol at his chest. “What do you want?”

Coop kept his face calm and collected. He was wearing body armor. He wasn’t a moron, but body armor wouldn’t protect him if she decided to shoot him in the face. “I told you what I wanted. I want the people who perpetrated the terrorist attack. The people your people picked up in the warehouse.” Coop kept his face emotionless as he watched her process the situation. “You look good, Hailey. Get a little work done?” He couldn’t help himself and cracked a smile.

Having an audio-only connection on a PAD and seeing someone face-to-face allowed people to read each other better. Hailey was clearly tense and expecting something. Coop tried to not be tense, but it was hard to a degree with a pistol pointed at his gut. Both of them read each other’s expressions with whatever experience they had gathered over the last year and a half.

After several tense seconds, Hailey tucked the pistol back in her jacket pocket. “You can have your people stand down,” she insisted as she casually leaned back on the bench.

Coop didn’t know if she actually knew where his people were, and he wasn’t going to give up that information. “How about all of our people stand down and we just talk.” He nodded toward the window where he knew the Hailey’s sniper was sitting.

Hailey didn’t give any indication of calling anyone off, but the tension in the air was less, which was good enough for Coop.

“Seriously, you look good.” Coop repeated. It was always good to start off a negotiation with a compliment.

“You look big.” Hailey ran her eyes up and down his enhanced body. “It looks like modern medicine has been good to both of us, but enough chit chat.” She brought them back on topic. “You’re looking for the Liberation Movement?”

“We hit several of their stash houses, confiscated weapons, and took out a few operatives, but some got away,” Coop relayed. He doubted Hailey and her people didn’t know about that already.

“The people you found in the warehouse were the last of the Movement’s people. We picked up two more guys, but they’re not local. They were independent third-party suppliers,” Hailey informed. “We want the Movement stopped as much as you do. It took out some of our people as well, and it’s bad for business.”

“It looks like we’re on the same page then.” Coop gave her his best smile. “But I’m going to need the name of the guy you were with. He shot my friend, and as you said, that’s bad for business.”

Hailey’s cheeks might have flushed a bit, but it didn’t stay that way. “We’re not on the same page, but we’re reading the same book. We’re open to cooperation to get justice for our people, but after that…” she left the rest unsaid. Her eyes shifted like she was looking around to make sure the coast was clear before whispering the name Coop wanted, “Noah Grisham.”

“That’s great,” Coop clapped his hands in excitement and reached into his own pocket.

In a blur, Hailey had the pistol back in her hand and pointed at him. <Damn she’s quick.>

“Easy,” Coop slowly pulled out a folded up PAD. “Take this to contact us. We’ll share intel and coordinate any future operations so no one’s signals get crossed. Sound good?”

Hailey lowered the weapon, put her hand in her own pocket, and pulled out another PAD. “How about you take this PAD and contact us when you’re about to do something so we don’t cross paths.”

Coop rolled his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was get into a dick-measuring contest here. “How about we take each other’s PADs? This way we have multiple lines of communication open.”

Coop liked to think it was his award-winning smile that sealed the deal when Hailey took his PAD, and he grabbed hers. She didn’t say goodbye or anything as she rose from the bench and headed directly to the most crowded spot in the square. It was midway between Eve and Sullivan, and there was no way either would get to her in time before she descended into the underground subway system, got on a bus, or just walked away in the throng of people streaming through the area.

Coop wanted to call out for her to stop. He still had so much to say. Business was out of the way and he wanted to know what had happened with her. His feelings weren’t the same as they’d been on that day he’d left the PHA. He’d grown up a lot in some ways, not a lot in others, but she was still a part what had led him to this point in his life. Simply put, he wanted to catch up with an old friend.

“Should I take the shot?” The SGM’s comment snapped him out of that train of thought.

“Hold fire. Mission complete.” Coop subvocalized as he got up and headed in the opposite direction. “Let’s exfil and get with the S2.”

Coop was sure the PAD Hailey had handed him was full of passive surveillance tech, just as he was sure the PAD he’d given her was. The S2 needed to go through the PAD and pull the data it could. The police and military’s locations weren’t exactly a secret on New Savannah, but the criminal elements of Hailey’s organization probably were. If the S2 could get a hit on them, then they’d be killing two birds with one stone.

<I doubt it.> Coop didn’t think they’d get squat. It was a burner PAD with customized software loaded on after purchase. Hailey looked like she knew what she was doing, and that meant her people were legit.

That was good though. It meant the New Savannah Liberation Movement didn’t have long.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 221

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

<I lost to this fucking guy?> Coop fumed.

Coop was understandably pissed. In his profession you needed to train like you fought. You couldn’t half-ass it, or you wouldn’t be able to cut it when it counted. His death in this training exercise only meant his V4 shut down, but he took it personally, and to finally meet the people that killed him only made it worse.

Coop tried to take a few deep breaths, but it wasn’t working too well. At Endex, the Commonwealth company had been defeated by the system defense company with the tank’s help. This was embarrassing, and the company’s LT and GYSGT were feeling it just as much as Coop. The Commonwealth forces were supposed to be the best, and getting beaten by a jumped up bunch of weekend warriors hurt.

The LT and GYSGT of the system defense company sure weren’t pulling any punches in their gentle ribbing of their counterparts, and the three people of the tank’s crew were merciless. As the HI support from the two companies, Eve and Coop sat apart from them, which helped Coop to not jump over the table and strangle one of the tankers.

Eve placed her hand over his, which was gripping the chair to the point of warping the polyplast frame. “Don’t be a sore loser. Learn from it. I don’t know about you but I sure as hell want to know how the tank survived your attack. I would have taken the same actions you did.”

Eve had just finished when the door slid open and the exercise graders, the SGM, and Thomas Gold walked in. The soldiers stood for the system defense CMDR and Commonwealth LCDR who held their evaluations in their hands. The SGM split off to the side and took a seat with Coop and Ben.

The review was detailed as the evaluators went over the operation step-by-step with the two company commanders. The Commonwealth LT was given good marks for his situational awareness and using the terrain to his advantage and outmaneuvering the system defense force. Despite the defense force’s victory, both the evaluators knew, and made it clear, that without the tank the defense force company would have been rolled up and defeated. Not much was said about the tank, and the company commanders and NCOICs were dismissed. The SGM, Thomas Gold, Coop, Eve, and the tankers remained.

“That was a hell of a show!” Gold had kept himself composed, but now that the others were out of the room, he couldn’t help but smile. “Sergeants, let me introduce you to retired Sergeant First Class Elysa McLamb, retired Command Sergeant Major Marcus Atwell, and retired Lieutenant Colonel Donald Southland.”

<Sergeant first class, command sergeant major and lieutenant colonel? That explains a lot.> Coop thought.

Just looking at the two men and one woman it was obvious they were old. All three had blue in their eyes, which judging from the rest of their look had been administered a long time ago and had run its course.  The LTC had more in common with a gnarled tree root than a human being. His skin looked more like worn, tanned leather than flesh. All three had white hair, and more than one had dental implants. Coop was surprised they’d been able to fight.

The retired part and their ranks made them even older. The Commonwealth’s rank consolidation into the rank structure of the larger navy wasn’t recent. It was probably going on a hundred and fifty years, but soldiers and marines had fought to keep their traditional ranks long after the Commonwealth’s formation.

All of that info pieced together gave Coop a better picture of the three people in front of him and why they were here. If Coop was reading the room right, the tankers were here at Thomas Gold’s request not the SGM.

“We recruited these three veterans for their valuable skills as we resurrect a lost form of combat,” Gold continued. “They’ve been involved in the creation of the Model One Patton Main Battle Tank for the last few months. Today was our first combat simulation, and as you can tell, it was quite successful.”

Coop bit down on his tongue. He’d been killed by a proof of concept, not even a real war machine.

“We’re all very interested to know how you’ve resurrected tanks and made them relevant to modern warfare.” The SGM kept his cool.

“Certainly,” Gold hit some buttons and holos sprang to life. “The Patton, or Patty, as the three tankers are affectionately calling her, is the combination of old and new. We’ve taken the expertise given by our three battle-hardened, former tankers and mirrored it with new technology gleaned from the Hegemony. Lieutenant Colonel, if you’d like to give us some historical prospective.”

“Sure, Sir.” The old man rasped. He sounded like he was on the verge of going into a coughing fit. “Tanks went out of style because they didn’t have defenses to stand up to weapons as they continued to modernize. They became hundred-ton moving coffins, and I should know. I saw most of my last command, a battalion of fifty-six tanks, manned by good men and women, pounded into submission without ever getting to fire a shot. Tanks primary mission has always been to have a heavy, maneuverable force that could take punches and dish it back out. When tanks lost the ability to take those punches, they became obsolete.” The old LTC’s somber expression broke into a big grin. “With Mr. Gold, and this new tech, I can now tell you tanks can take that punch again, and fuck up anyone trying to give it to them.”

“We knew tanks needed to be stronger than they’ve ever been, and the new gluon power sources and shield tech have made that a possibility.” Gold stepped back in to take over from the exuberant LTC before the guy had a stroke on the spot.

“I thought all of the grants from the government went to purchasing material for the news ships and personnel?” The SGM asked, careful not to give away more info about the SRRTs to the non-vetted tankers.

“Those funds were allocated according to contracts, but now that Gold Technologies is a licensed business in the Hegemony, we’ve started to make our own purchases.” Gold ignored the frown on the SGM’s face at the revelation and continued. “The Patton’s are our first solo project with the new tech, and the system defense force has been kind enough to let us put her through her paces during their training exercises.”

<Which is why we didn’t know about them going into this.> Coop surmised.

“Now, what we’ve done with the Patton’s is create a new mobile and protective platform to put superior firepower down range while supporting the regular infantry.” Gold turned on his salesman mode. “We’ve incorporated two layers of shielding into a Patton. The first layer is to protect the tank itself. As Sergeant Cooper learned firsthand, it is more than capable of shrugging off multiple hyper-velocity missile strikes. It would take repeated pounding by one of the HI’s 250mm cannons to break through those shields, and with counterbattery railguns and countermeasures, on top of anti-grav maneuverability, we’re confident the tank would be able to avoid attacks as well.”

Coop was impressed. He knew that simulated projections and the real deal were two very different things, but that left the elephant in the room.

“The big concern is still spaceborne capabilities,” Gold continued like he’d read Coop’s mind. “We think that same maneuverability protects the Patton’s from kinetic rounds. A direct hit would likely destroy the tank, but with the time in flight we’re confident in the tanks evasive abilities. With that covered, energy weapons become the focal point. Deployment will always need to be considered in systems where the Commonwealth doesn’t have control of the orbitals, but our tests suggest that the tank’s shield could survive a direct hit from a battlecruiser-sized warship and keep on coming. The dispersion of the beam weapons through the atmosphere is what makes us so confident in our speculation.”

<You think the tank can take a hit from a battlecruiser and keep on chugging. Dream on.> Coop didn’t believe the sales pitch, but the titan of industry was already moving on.

“The second layer of shielding is to provide cover to the trailing infantry forces from indirect fire; like what the good Sergeant Cooper tried to rain down on the system defense force during the exercise.” Gold gave Coop a nod. “The second shield isn’t as strong as the tank’s main shield, but it allows for adaptability to the mission. The shield can expand and condense from a few meters around the tank to one hundred and fifty meters. The more the shield is condensed, the stronger it is.”

“Tanks have been providing cover for infantry since their inventions. This is just an extension of that.” The retired CSM threw in his two cents. “I can also speak from personal experience that they handle like a dream. Anti-grav makes most terrain passable. The Patton’s are pretty light for tanks, only fifty-five tons, and can reach an impressive one hundred and eighty kilometers per hour at full speed. My aging back can also confirm they’re a smooth ride.” The CSM’s comment got a chuckle from the rest of the tank crew and Mr. Gold.

“Sergeant McLamb, do you want to talk about what the tank is offensively capable of.”

“Sure,” the SFC’s voice was surprisingly high-pitched. “As far as my experience indicates, the Patton is a lighter tank than has been fielded in the past. The main gun is only one hundred and twenty five millimeters, but it’s capable of firing several different types of armaments. You’ve got your standard fire-and-forget rounds, which can be anything from anti-tank, HE, to anti-personnel. It also has smart rounds, STRATNET guided to hit within a meter of a certain point. These are great to limit civilian casualties, but none of those two compare to the final mode. It’s the fucking shit.” The woman smiled at her other two crewmembers.

“We were able to have a research team do a walk through on a Hegemony planet…”

“You’ve had interaction on Hegemony worlds!” The SGM’s calm broke. “The Prime Minister has dictated that the government is going to make first contact with further races to ensure continuity of diplomacy!”

“I am well aware, Sergeant Major,” Gold didn’t look bothered by the senior NCO’s outburst. “It was a Twig storage planet. No new contact was made with any other Hegemony species, so we are within the Prime Minister’s edict.” He motioned for the SFC to continue.

“It’s called a gravitational cannon or something like that, but we call it the BitchSlapper, or BS for short.” Coop couldn’t help but laugh at the SFC’s pet name. “Laugh now,” she shot back. “It took you out in one shot.” Her comment sobered him up.

“The only downside is Patty only has a ten-round capability for the BS before it needs a serious recharge and can affect other systems. I don’t know the science behind it, I’m a gunner not a nerd, but it’s got something to do with using anti-grav to condense a lot of energy into something we can shoot out of the cannon. It’s a fire-and-forget projectile, and doesn’t look like much coming out of the tube, but when it hits…” the SFC brought her hand down on the table with a loud SMACK, “you’ll remember it. Just like when you’re momma smacked you upside the head for being a dumbass, Patty will smack an enemy into nothing.”

The SFC didn’t spend much time on the 8mm gun on the exterior hull, as well as the 20mm launcher, or the circular laser repeaters on each of the tank’s four corners. Coop paid attention to those repeaters. They could be used for offensive or defensive operations. He hated to admit it, but these new tanks were beasts.

<I’m still calling BS on the BS.> Coop put his foot down.

Gold must have seen the expression written on his face. “We’re doing some test fires in a few days over on Richmond Hill. You’re more than welcome to come. The Rear Admiral will also be in attendance. Once we get all of the kinks worked out of the system we’ll be taking orders from the Commonwealth.”

Coop didn’t know how he thought about that. Once the Commonwealth started fielding them, every other army would want them as well. Coop was comfortable with the status quo, and being the biggest motherfucker on the field of battle. A tank ended that monopoly, and put his ass at even more risk. That was the last thing he needed in his life.

His attention was pulled off Gold by his PAD chiming. One look at the number and another look at the SGM got him dismissed. This was the call he’d been waiting for.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 219

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“Crossing Nile now.” The front squad leader sent over TACCOM.

“Roger, keep your spacing. Bobcat Six out.” The LT leading the exercise directed his subordinate.

Coop listened to it all over his suit’s coms while striding roughly two hundred meters to the advancing company’s east. This was the third day of the joint training exercise, and the second iteration of the day. Part of the Commonwealth’s duties was to assist in the training and development of the local defense forces. The Fleet and Infantry were large entities, enough to take the fight to the enemy, but even with their manpower they couldn’t be everywhere at once.

The Fleet and their Infantry counterparts were strategically stationed throughout the Commonwealth at permanent bases like the Asgard System, New Washington, and even New Savannah to a degree. From those bases, units and ships forward deployed to hotspots and other locations where admirals thought they were needed. Coop had been deployed from Thor to New Lancashire, and would have been there for the duration of the tour, or until the locals were more established. It was up to the system’s defense forces to provide the bulk of a planet’s protection on a more permanent basis.

Coop knew if it wasn’t for the R&D presence on New Savannah there wouldn’t be a Commonwealth fleet presence. Since that R&D was kind of a big deal, the Fleet had a small anchorage on the moon Pooler with a few ships assigned to the anchorage as their home port, as well as three infantry battalions to protect Commonwealth interests. Three thousand soldiers might sound like a lot, but on a planet populated by billions they weren’t even a drop in the bucket. Still, as far as assignments went, New Savannah was a cushy one. The training with the locals were the toughest conditions they’d had yet, and that wasn’t saying much.

Pooler was a military moon, unlike the corporate moons of Richmond Hill and Pembroke. It was a barren hunk of rock whose only sign of human civilization was a small domed town. A giant umbilical ran from the town up to the main space station above. That was where the cradles for the warships sat. The infantry on the moon was billeted in the domed town when they were on maneuvers, but for the most part the town was home to the military and civilian tech who kept the ships supplied and running. When the SRRT, along with a company of Commonwealth infantry and an understrength battalion of system defense arrived to use the large swathes of barren landscape for training exercises, the residents hadn’t been very welcoming.

Coop knew that was a trend. People who tended to live on moons or in asteroid habitats tended to be more independent of the problems plagued by planetary authorities. Since they were represented in the Commonwealth government by the planetary elected officials, who usually didn’t know or care about the fringe needs of those people, there tended to be a little animosity. That animosity had started to boil over during their stay with more than one fight breaking out at the local watering hole.

“Cooper, keep your head in the game.” GYSGT Cunningham snapped over a person-to-person channel.

Coop snapped himself out of it, and saw the company had advanced almost two hundred meters without him. “Sorry, Gunney. On it.” In his V4 LACS, Coop was easily able to catch up.

The mission was simple. The locals and infantry were taking turns swapping sides on a simple movement to contact mission. In terms of actual training value, Coop had his doubts. Both sides knew where the other was by virtue of having played offense and defense. Everyone knew that the defenders were set up three kilometers away, that they were dug in along the edge of a crater, and there were certain avenues of approach available to a company-sized force to maneuver and win the day.

Coop didn’t give a shit about their little war games. He was here to test out his V4, but even then he was limited. First off, everything was simulated. It was more about going through the correct procedure and maintaining his JTAC status at first. At least that was how it started off. Coop checked all those boxes on day one, fired live rounds on a different range, and did his own call for fire on a destroyer orbiting above them in support. He was good to go, as was most of the SRRT. Only a few were still qualifying at the other ranges, which unfortunately left Coop and the others taking turns on babysitting the grunts and shooting blanks.

“I’m getting some weird readings,” the front squad leader sent back to the LT.

Jamming on the battlefield was normal, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Coop had seen the same tactic used by the defense on most of his iterations.

“Ballboy, this is Bobcat Six, request fire, over.” The LT passed over the specific fire-direction net. Coop was tapped into the company net, so he wasn’t sure why the LT was switching nets to talk to him.

<I’m only an E5.> Coop told himself for the tenth time. <Let the officers do what they want.> It didn’t help his mood that they were using his call sign that he didn’t like and couldn’t change.

“This is Ballboy, send it, Bobcat Six.”

“Sending grid,” the LT passed the coordinates where he wanted the indirect fire. Coop was just thankful the LT didn’t spell out the ten-digit coordinate over coms and waste time. “Give me three smoke, fifty meter horizontal dispersion.”

Coop plugged everything into his fire-control systems. He knew how to do everything manually, but the system just made it so much easier. Once everything was set, and the rounds were chambered, which only took a few seconds, Coop got back to the LT. “Authenticate Fire mission, Bobcat Six.”

Coop’s V4 neural net did a handshake with the LT’s Dragonscales command version, and a green light signaled the mission was confirmed. “Confirmed, Bobcat Six. Shot over.” Coop didn’t even have to think about getting in a proper firing position. He did it instinctually.

“Shot out.”

“Splash over.” Coop sent when the three rounds were five seconds from impact. Per SOP, these were smart rounds that were going through preloaded counterfire procedures, so they didn’t just go up and fall back down on the target.

“Splash out.”

As a non-lethal, the smoke rounds were real, and if experience was anything, it was the only real rounds he’d be firing during the iteration. Coop’s Buss was magnetically stuck to his side where he hadn’t drawn it since qualifying on the range on their first day.

Coop saw the puffs in the distance as the smoke rounds exploded just before hitting the ground. The “smoke” which blocked not only the human eye but sensors as well, spread quickly throughout the entire area in front of them. At twenty five meters spacing, the Company’s front stretched over a hundred meters. The smoke made sure the enemy couldn’t see them, but it also meant they couldn’t see the enemy…usually. Everyone already knew where everyone else was.

The LT must have communicated with one of his squad leaders, because one of the squads moving at the rear of the formation surged to the front and to the left . They’d pass right through Coop’s position, and probably wouldn’t ever see him. The polychromatic armor on the V4 was awesome; the best humans had ever developed. It worked the best when he was standing still, but the R&D guys had increased its effectiveness while in motion. Coop could run at full speed, and the blurring that had occurred with the V3s was gone. Eve said it was a great improvement.

Instead of moving, Coop just stood still and watched the ten-man squad stream past him. One guy came within two meters and didn’t even spot him. Coop considered reaching out and tapping the guy on the shoulder, but he didn’t want to poor kid to shit his pants. He only had the single chevron of a PVT, and was probably just out of Basic.

The squad humped it five hundred meters up to a small dune that gave them a slight overwatch over the planned avenue of approach. It allowed them to see above the smoke, but not by much. Coop tapped into their feed, but the view was still filled with static.

“Ballboy, Bobcat Six, adjust fire, over.” The LT sent.

Coop went through the motions of adjusting fire, which just had him putting more smoke downrange closer to the enemy’s supposed position. Coop expected it to be to cover their advance, but then the LT did something different. Three squads abruptly left the formation and headed nearly a kilometer to the right. Their movement was blocked by a line of dunes the comprised Phase Line Mississippi, the final line in the operations order before assaulting the objective.

Coop brought up the map to see what the hell the LT was doing. The only thing to their right was a five hundred meter deep ravine. No one had done anything in that direction before. The natural terrain anchored the Company’s right flank, so no one could get around them without going nearly twenty kilometers out of their way.

<Unless.> Coop pulled up the Company’s latest logistics dump. <Son of a bitch.> The latest table of equipment showed enough anti-grav climbing gear for about thirty soldiers. <Sneaky bastard.> Coop grinned.

The ravine was an advantage to both the attacking and defending force. It anchored their right and left flanks respectively, and allowed for the concentration of their forces along the other avenues of approach. <But if the LT’s plans work, he’ll be able to roll up their left flank while the main body of the company advances and fixes the enemy in position. Along with indirect fire, he’ll wipe out the enemy force.>

Coop thought it was a solid plan, and more outside the box than previous iterations by the system defense force leaders. Still, no plan survived contact with the enemy, and Coop knew the guys dug in along the crater ahead of them would take issue with it.

“Ballboy, Bobcat Six, commence fire missions on TRPs one, two, and three,” the LT ordered.

The target reference points were already inputted into Coop’s system during the operation’s planning phase, so he didn’t have to go through the whole call for fire process. All Coop did was confirm the order and send the rain. Twelve rounds total, four per TRP, went downrange, but this time Coop didn’t just stand there. He hauled ass.

“Counterbattery fire.” He stated calmly across the company net as simulated round reached out from the enemy’s positions. Rifle and laser fire also started to pour from the enemy’s defensive line. The V4’s neutral net projected the incoming fire on Coop’s HUD. Nothing was actually being fired at him, but the computer scored hits and kills like it had.

As more enemies fired, the more data streamed in and highlighted their positions. The LT left Coop to fire on his own accord, but since this was mainly an force on force exercise, Coop kept his indirect fire to a minimum unless the enemy did something really stupid.

Coop was about to take a group of soldiers who stupidly jumped out of their foxholes and ran along the edge of the ridge under fire, when his sensors started screaming. His railgun automatically launched into action and destroyed the incoming shell that would have landed right on top of his head. His shield still registered hits as shrapnel from the round would have hit him, but it was still at ninety-seven percent efficiency.

“Watch your ass, Coop.” Eve’s haughty voice relayed over a direct channel. “I’ve had you dialed in for a full minute.”

“Wow a full minute to get off a shot,” Coop teased, all while computing counterfire. He wasn’t going to let a Ranger get the best of him. He was HI, this was what he did. “I’m surprised you qualified.”

Coop backtracked Eve’s round, and examined the terrain in her immediate vicinity. He spotted two likely hiding places, so he sent a few rounds to both. He staggered the rounds to see if he could pinpoint Eve and redirect. His sensors picked up railgun rounds from the second hiding position, so he redirected all the remaining rounds on that point.

Eve didn’t say anything else, so he wasn’t sure if she was a confirmed kill or just playing possum. It would be like the woman to feign being dead and then come back and bite him in the ass when he least expected.

<It happens to me often enough.> He kept an eye on the three squads traversing the ravine.

They’d made it across, reconsolidated, spread out, and were advancing with a sense of urgency. The enemy was just starting to realize their presence, but the three squads had surprise and violence of action on their side. Another ten minutes and the thirty men would have swept aside a force twice their size, but Murphy decided to rear its ugly head.

On the opposite side of the Company’s lines, the LT had two squads anchoring the flank from cover behind a few dunes. Fire teams were on those dunes engaging the enemy, but not anymore. Half were streaming down the dunes in full retreat.

“Ballyboy, fire for effect on…” the LT’s transmission was abruptly cut.

Coop enlarged his display and saw the LT’s position had taken a direct hit from indirect fire. <Fucking Eve,> Coop sighed. There wasn’t a lot he could have done. If the LT had requested and deployed swatters it would have caught those incoming rounds, or he could have simply kept his head down. Both were viable options. The LT didn’t do either. <Good tactician, lousy common sense.> Coop concluded, and turned his attention back to the fleeing fire teams. He’d taken up a position about a hundred meters behind their position, so whatever was coming was headed right towards him.

Coop wanted to start a fire mission on what the LT had been trying to tell him, but the SGM had reiterated several times that they weren’t here to turn the tides of the battle. They were support fire to give the infantry a hand if they asked for it. It was up to the maneuvering units to fight and win the battle. Coop followed through and reestablished comms with the Company NCOIC, but that GYSGT was leading the three squads that were rolling up the flank, and she didn’t know what the LT was going to ask. So Coop just waited, and he didn’t have to wait long.

<What the fuck is that?!> Something floated into view between two of the dunes the fire teams had just abandoned.

Coop knew a lot about modern weaponry. He had to as part of his job. He needed to know the best rounds to put into something to kill it. What he was seeing right now he couldn’t identify. Well…he could identify what it technically was, but beyond that it was a crap shoot.

A fucking tank had just emerged between the dunes and was advancing forward at about five kilometers an hour. Coop caught movement behind it, and knew infantry was trailing in its wake. Since they were headed right toward Coop’s position, he was positive he wasn’t going to get reamed for taking action.

<All or nothing.> Coop was going big. And it only took him a moment to devise a battle plan.

It was simple. As far as he knew, the tank still hadn’t seen him. There was a reason tanks weren’t used anymore: they weren’t as maneuverable as LACS, and they were an easy target to spaceborne weapons. Today, there weren’t any spaceborne assets available, but Coop had a nearly full arsenal to work with.

There were two targets he needed to consider. First was the tank itself, and next was the infantry moving in behind it. They were trying to do the very thing the three friendly squads were doing on the other side of the battlefield. With a tank, they’d quickly roll up the flanks, and with the LT gone, communication wasn’t as effective. Sure, there were contingences, but the unit just wasn’t as effective with their leader down.

Coop’s plan took both of those targets under fire and he used multiple weapons systems. First, he unlocked his Buss and got it ready if he needed to engage directly. Second, he dialed in a combination of shots from his 250mm cannon. The first was smoke to put between him and the enemy. Since they were so close, and he knew where they were, he wasn’t worried about follow-on shots. Three rounds of anti-personnel would follow the smoke round. They were aimed over the tank and set for a downward dispersion. At the same time those three rounds were being fired, Coop was going to launch four of his shoulder-mounted missiles right into the tank’s grill. That should immobilize the old war machine and stop the attack.

It took a few seconds for Coop to sequence everything but then it was good to go. The live smoke round went first and detonated with a much louder THUMP since it was only seventy five meters in front of him. The simulated follow-on rounds and missiles flew directly after that. Coop only held position until the 250mm rounds were away and then he started to move.

He didn’t get an immediate battle damage assessment because of the sensor-disrupting smoke, but he moved quickly to get around the tank and enemy infantry. If on the off chance he’d missed, or the tank had survived, he wanted to take a shot up its ass and get it for good.

Coop had leapt about twenty meters away when alarms screamed in his suit. His shield dropped to zero and its left side locked up.

“What the shit?” he yelled inside his suit as it registered a proximity detonation that broke the integrity of his LACS.

Since they were on a moon with an inhospitable environment, the LACS automatically went into shut down mode and locked off the damaged area. Coop was left with half a working suit. He couldn’t engage, and with half his systems offline, he wasn’t even hidden anymore. He returned fire with his Buss as the tank and infantry moved through the smoke, but no one dropped.

“This is bullshit!” Coop yelled to anyone who was listening when the tank’s turret turned toward him and a simulated round ended the exercise for him.

Coop had to spend the next hour lying in the dirt in his shut down V4 while Eve talked shit until Endex. When his suit finally powered back up, he wanted answers.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 218

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

“Is that your story?” The detective said from across the solid metal table.

Coop gave the man a once over and tried not to laugh. The man was trying to intimidate Coop into saying something. What that something was, Coop had no idea, but the detective wasn’t the person to do it. The guy was well on his way to a beer gut, about thirty centimeters shorter, and had a mustache that looked like it belonged in a porno. The more Coop thought about it, the more he wondered why anyone would grow facial hair on New Savannah. Having your face sweat profusely didn’t seem like a smart idea.

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” Coop looked over his shoulder at GYSGT Cunningham. The detective might not be intimidating, but his former Basic instructor made up for that. She hadn’t said a word during the whole interrogation.

The cops who’d arrived at the Oasis after the shooting said it was a debrief, but Coop knew the difference. This was definitely an interrogation, and the detective proved it a second later when he burst out of his chair and started screaming.

“Do you expect me to believe that shit?! Are you seriously going to sit there and tell me that your mission was blown because one of the whores recognized you from back home on Earth, kicked you over a railing, and then you got in a shootout with the establishment’s security.” Spittle flew as the man yelled, and some of it stuck to the mustache.

Coop tried not to roll his eyes as the man continued to fume. Coop could feel the GYSGT’s cold gaze on his back, and hoped that she believed him. He’d explained exactly what happened and left nothing out.

“If you don’t trust me…fine,” Coop cut in when the detective’s face was red from exertion and he needed to draw a breath. “Just check the building’s camera footage. That should clear everything up, and for the love of god, say it don’t spray it.”

Coop thought that would give the detective another conniption, but it did just the opposite.

“The business that you shot up doesn’t have cameras, and even if they did, we would need a warrant to obtain them. As police officers we have rules, unlike whatever the hell you are.”

Coop had to give the overweight man that point. The cop didn’t know who Coop was. All he knew was that their captain had received a call from someone high in their own government that stated Coop was not to be charged with anything. That was great for Coop, but that didn’t mean the detective wasn’t going to hold him and try to milk him for information before he was released.

Coop was about to respond when the GYSGT beat him to it. “That’s suspicious.” The two words seemed to startle the detective. Cunningham had just been standing there silently in the corner, and he’d forgotten she was there. “This isn’t a backwater planet right after terraforming. There is no reason a business as profitable as the Oasis claims itself to be should not have some type of surveillance on the premises.”

“It doesn’t matter…”

“Of course it matters,” she cut the detective off. “The absence of something sometimes indicates something in itself. In our case, the absence of surveillance means that the Oasis didn’t want their activities captured and stored.”

“That may be the case.” The detective cooled down a bit and acknowledged the point. “But there is nothing we can do about it. The Oasis has the proper permits, is licensed as a leisurely club, and isn’t breaking any laws. Even the armed security on the premises are all licensed and on the up and up. They were responding to a disturbance, a disturbance they said your man started.”

“I didn’t start it,” Coop stated for the thousandth time. “She started it by kicking me over the railing, and some dude shot my friend with a laser pistol. Maybe we should look into that a little.”

Both the GYSGT and detective stopped their conversation and look at Coop with the same expression. That expression clear told him to shut the fuck up.

<Fine.> Coop leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms across his chest defensively. <You two figure it out.>

Eventually they did figure it out. Cunningham promised that they would remain available for questioning, but since the planetary brass decided no charges were being levied, Coop was free to go.

“You know where to find me.” Coop gave the man one last poke as he exited the “debrief” room.

The man sneered back but didn’t reply. A car was waiting for them at the front of the local precinct, and it took them back to the base via a roundabout way. Their path could be backtracked through the satellites watching overhead, but Coop was pretty sure the GYSGT was making sure they didn’t have a tail. After all, no one other than the security guards had been apprehended at the scene.

They passed through the gate without incident and went directly to the HQ building. Coop wanted to go see Mike at the base hospital, but the GYSGT wasn’t having any of it. She escorted him inside and through several secure areas. It took a moment until Coop knew where they were headed.

“Oh come on, Gunney. I just got finished with one of these,” Coop complained as she opened another door to find the SGM and S2 LCDR sitting there waiting for him.

“Sit,” the SGM stated, and Coop obeyed. “Tell us what happened and don’t fuck around.”

Coop didn’t even dream of playing with the SGM, and he told the story. It just happened to be the same story he told the local cops because that was the truth.

“Her name is Hailey Armstrong. We grew up together in the Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis back on Earth. She was kind of my girlfriend. I didn’t expect in a million years to ever run into her again.”

The SGM and LCDR remained silent, but the GYSGT couldn’t help but chuckle. “You need to keep it in your pants Cooper. That thing between your legs keeps getting you in trouble.”

The LCDR ignored the GYSGT and tapped away on her PAD. “Is this her?” She showed Coop the screen.

“No.” The woman on the screen was big, had a scar, and was nowhere near as beautiful as Hailey.

“So this is her.” The LCDR swiped and a second image came into focus.

Unlike the first image, this one was taken from a distance and didn’t grab facial features well. On top of that, the person was wearing sunglasses and a hat. That didn’t leave Coop much to work with, but he scrutinized the picture closely.

“I think that is her. She’s changed since the PHA. She’s fifteen centimeters taller, probably has another fifteen-to-twenty kilos on her, and she kicks like a fucking mule.” Coop absentmindedly rubbed his chest. “She’s got bigger titties…I mean…she’s had breast enhancements, but I’d say that’s her.” Coop slid the PAD back to the LCDR.

The LCDR gave the SGM a nod and left the room. That left Coop alone with those in his chain of command. These were the people that could really ruin his day.

“I’m not going to tell you congratulations, Sergeant. Your primary objective was to infiltrate the establishment and gather intelligence. You got made, and worse, got into a gunfight with local security, so you failed your mission.” The SGM deadpanned, which hit Coop harder than he thought it would. “But we’re infantrymen, Sergeant. We make do with what we’re given and we adapt and overcome. You failed your initial mission, but you’ve gained some useful intelligence while presenting us with an unforeseen opportunity.”

“What?” Coop stared at the SGM in confusion. He’d expected the ass chewing to continue.

“The S2 was able to pick through all of the legal loopholes and identified that the Oasis is a franchise of a subsidiary, of another subsidiary, of an LLC, that is a child company owned by a parent company that was inherited by the son of the son-in-law of Madame Putinski herself.” The SGM seemed impressed at that fact.

“What?” Coop repeated, sounding even stupider in his own ears.

The GYSGT sighed from behind Coop, and the SGM just shook his head. “Madame Putinski has been under investigation by the Commonwealth for close to seventy years for everything from illegal drug synthesis, to distribution, to racketeering, prostitution, and even murder. The first photo the Lieutenant Commander showed you was for the recently identified manager of the Oasis, and we believe, Putinski crime family boss of Savannah City, or even the whole planet.” The SGM stopped to let the gravity of the situation set in. “The second photo is of a still unidentified underling in the organization’s Asset Protection department.”

“You mean like shoplifting.” Coop remembered the term from the mega stores that his father got enough money to go to once every five years or so.

“I mean they protect the organization’s assets. That could be laundered money, drug houses, illegal labs, or in our case prostitutes.” The SGM made a flick and Hailey’s disguised photo floated in the air in front of them.

“I might be wrong here, but last time I checked isn’t prostitution legal on New Savannah?” Coop asked.

He wasn’t being completely truthful. He knew prostitution was legal on the planet. It was something he checked on every new planet he arrived on. Laws concerning mankind’s oldest profession were something handled down at the planetary level. The Commonwealth didn’t hold any sway over it aside from taxation. On most worlds it was legal as long as the business was registered, the workers were routinely tested and cleared by a medical professional, and they paid their taxes. The profession tended to be illegal on planets with a strong religious connection. Coop knew it was illegal in the Papal States, Maccabee Alliance, New Caliphate, and a dozen or so other planets scattered throughout Commonwealth space, but they tended to be the exception, not the rule.

Since it was legal on New Savannah, Coop wondered what the planetary authorities, or even the Commonwealth, wanted with Hailey.

“It is legal, but the Putinski’s frequently use legitimate businesses to funnel money from other less reputable sources. Due to the incident, which we have you to thank for, the Commonwealth’s forensic accountants are going through Oasis’ books. Anything out of the ordinary and they’ll seize the assets, arrest the workers, and follow the money trail. In this regard, your little fight could have cracked open a big case for them.” The SGM finally cracked a smile. It was a small one, but it was still one nonetheless.

“So,” Coop leaned back and relaxed a little, “I guess you could say I did a good job.”

“Fuck no!” the GYSGT shouted, and Coop almost fell out of his chair. “You failed in your mission. Falling right into a positive situation doesn’t reflect on you more than the circumstances. Getting lucky doesn’t make you a good soldier, Cooper.”

<I respectfully disagree.> Coop thought. It had been lucky that he’d been kicked over the railing by Hailey. That wasn’t what he thought at the moment, but after seeing how Mike got barbequed by whoever was in that room, Coop realized luck played a big part in staying alive in this line of work.

“Regardless of how you landed in this situation,” the SGM regained control of the conversation, “we are going to exploit the opportunity. I’m sending you back to the Oasis to make contact with Hailey Armstrong. We want you to gain any intel she may have and relay it to us.”

“Umm…how do I put this so I don’t get yelled at,” Coop wondered out loud. “I know Hailey. She’s loyal. She’s not going to turn on anyone, so trying to gain intel on the Putinski’s is a waste of time.” Coop expected the GYSGT to come down on him, but she didn’t. She and the SGM just waited expectantly for him to continue. “I suggest we stay in our lane. The SRRT is here to get the people that orchestrated and carried out the terrorist attack. I should pursue that avenue of intelligence.”

The SGM and GYSGT shared a quick look and nodded. “Proceed at your discretion, Sergeant.” The SGM passed Coop a new PAD. “Give her this to make contact.”

<Do they just have a box of these lying around somewhere?> Coop took the new PAD and slowly got up to leave. When no one yelled at him to sit his ass back down, he exited the S2’s secure office.

Thirty minutes later he was standing back in front of the Oasis, and an angry security guard, who Coop recognized as one of the ones that was shooting at him a few hours ago, looked to be itching to draw his weapon and finish the job.

“For the last time I don’t know who the fuck this Hailey is.” Despite his anger, the guard was sticking to the company line.

They’d been going back and forth for a couple of minutes, and the guy wasn’t budging on letting Coop in. “Fine!” Coop sighed. “Just give her this and tell her to call me.” Coop extended the PAD.

“I’m not taking that.” The guard made no motion to take it.

“For fuck’s sake,” Coop took out a slip of polyplast and scrolled a number on it. Coop’s barely legible handwriting straightened to form an easily identifiable call number. “Tell Hailey to call me on this number. I just want to talk, and I think it can be in both of our best interests. Tell her this is no bullshit.”

No bullshit held special meaning to Coop and Hailey. It went all the way back to their time in the PHA.  On top of fucking each other, they liked to fuck with each other to the point it was hard to tell what was real and what was a prank. Saying “no bullshit” was their code to tell the other person they weren’t screwing around. Coop hoped that would get the point across to her.

“Seriously,” Coop pressed the point. “Tell her this is no bullshit. Tell her those exact words…no bullshit.” Coop realized he might sound a little crazy, but if this was the only way he was going to get to her, then he didn’t want some low-level grunt fucking it up.

The guard in question didn’t say anything. He didn’t confirm or deny Hailey presence. He just grabbed the polyplast slip and told Coop to fuck off.

<That’s the best I can hope for.> Coop gave the other man a nod and headed back to his taxi. He really wanted a drink, but he knew he needed to get back to base.

It had been an interesting last few days, but the SGM wasn’t letting up on their SSRT training. Since the mission against the terrorists was a part success-part failure, he’d set up some more conventional training exercises for them to partake in.

Coop was fine with that. He’d finally be getting to put his V4 through its paces. Any more cloak and dagger shit could wait until later. Coop wanted to get back to what he was good at: blowing shit up in a big suit of armor. He enjoyed being the baddest motherfucker on the battlefield.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 217

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

The kick caught Coop by surprise. He mentally berated himself for that. He was supposed to be a top-tier operator of a covert team working with the latest technological innovations. Instead, he’d been distracted by a pretty face.

<It’s not any face.> He barely registered the railing hitting him in the lower back and the momentum driving him over it.

The face itself was different, along with the body. The Hailey Coop remembered had been smaller and thinner, but despite that, there were some things that hadn’t changed. The first were the eyes. Those amber pools were exotic as hell back in the PHA. Since leaving that festering shit hole, Coop had seen much more exotic. Hell, he’d even fucked a chick that’d dyed her skin blue for whatever reason. Hailey’s eyes weren’t as exotic anymore, but he remembered every detail of them. He’d stared into them on many occasions, and during many different situations, for years. You remembered stuff like that.

Second was the voice. Electronic voice modulation or simply biological manipulation of the voice box could change a person’s voice easy enough. Hailey hadn’t done that. Coop would recognize that voice anywhere. She must have gone through a similar process in trying to identify him. He wasn’t a skinny little PHA Rat anymore either, but her reaction was totally different. He wanted to ask her how she was, what she’d been doing, and how she got to New Savannah. The planet didn’t have a reputation for a cheap standard of living.

She, on the other hand, reacted with violence, and Coop’s complacency was rapidly catching up to him with gravity’s assistance. He heard the whine of an energy weapon powering up just before he hit the ground. He tensed and tried to twist and rotate to keep his head from impacting. The thump and spasm of pain that ran through his arm indicated he’d at least succeeded in that, but he had new problems to worry about.

He rolled, and came up to see his head had missed the edge of the fountain by centimeters. That sent a shiver down his spine. He might be a super soldier, but falling half a dozen meters and smashing his head on an edge like that would have fucked him up. He only had a fraction of a second to think about that before the snap of a round passing close to him pulled him back to his present shitty situation. A round fired by one of the guards stationed around the room impacted the water in the fountain, sending a wet spray into his mouth and face. The second hit the opposite edge of the fountain and faux-rock shrapnel exploded from the point of impact. The third would have taken Coop in the neck if he didn’t duck and roll.

He maneuvered around the fountain to maintain cover and concealment, but it would only last for so long. There was more than one guard in the room and they were converging on him from many different directions. He didn’t have a weapon, he didn’t have options, so he didn’t have a choice. He needed to move and hope that guards weren’t the best shot.

He looked around and saw his best bet. The bar was only about fifteen meters away and people were scattering at the sound of gunshots. That would give him a little cover if the guards cared about their guests, which wasn’t a given.

One guy wasn’t fleeing though. Coop recognized him as the soldier-type fellow from the bar. He calmly leaned against the bar, drank his booze, and laughed at Coop’s predicament. Coop identified him as a threat, but the guy wasn’t shooting at him, so he was less of a threat than the guard converging on his position.

<Fuck it!> Coop couldn’t wait any longer. He braced one foot on the fountain’s base, got the other foot out in front of him in a sprinter’s stance, and pushed off with all his strength.

The guard’s anticipation of catching him as they rounded the corner, and his surprising speed, caught them off guard. They fired, despite the people scurrying for cover, and their first rounds were well behind him. Coop knew as well as anyone that fifteen meters might not seem like a lot of space, but it seemed to stretch on for an eternity when someone was trying to kill you. Eventually, the guards were going to adjust.

Coop slowed down for a moment as he bowled over two fleeing men in front of him. They looked like normal guys, and his enhanced frame smashing into them sent them flying, but that second cost him. Rounds started to fly all around him, and impacted behind the bar. Genuine glass and polyplast exploded as the high-velocity darts of the guard’s weapons destroyed them and the mural of a tropical sunset that filled the wall behind it.

Coop felt a pain and a burning sensation in his leg, but he didn’t slow down. He vaulted the bar like an Olympic athlete, and turned his good shoulder toward the wall. His speed was a disadvantage now, but he took the impact as best he could, putting a big dent in the wall before falling behind the cover of the bar itself.

<Thank god that wasn’t a shitty wall.> If it had been cheap construction he would have likely gotten stuck in it and killed. He pushed that aside of he considered his possible courses of action.

“Hey, Janice,” he said casually to the bartender who was cowering next to where he’d landed. The previously flirty woman scowled back and put as much space between her and him as possible. He got a good look at her ass as she crawled away, but he was sure that was as far as he would get with her.

He shook his head and focused back on his surroundings. With his thoughts still slightly on Hailey, his old PHA Rat ways came back to him a little. He’d been spoiled by the infantry, especially the HI, and without his armor and high-tech toys he needed to go old school. Coop reached underneath the bar where the cheap shit was usually kept. The high-priced booze was usually on the shelves to show patrons how fancy the joint was, but those bottles were all shattered. That was ok. The cheap stuff would do just fine.

He grabbed a rag that was lined with microscopic cleaning nanites that bartenders had used to wipe down glasses since the beginning of time, and stuff one end in the top of an open bottle. He turned the bottle upside down to get the end nice and wet. Then he found a small butane torch that bartenders used for some of the fancier drinks, and lit the opposite end of the rag. It held out against the flame for a few seconds as the nanites did their best to do what they were programmed to do, but eventually they were burned away and the rag caught.

Since Coop jumped over the bar about eight seconds had passed, and as long as the guards weren’t fucking morons, they’d be pushing their tactical advantage. Coop needed to buy time, so he lobbed the centuries-old Molotov cocktail up and over the bar. The bottle broke on the other side and the flames started to spread. He just hoped it was enough.

Coop tried to think of a way out as his hands hurriedly made another improvised fire bomb. He was just about to toss it when someone stuck their weapon over the bar and started to fire. Coop tried to pull back but he wasn’t quicker than a bullet. A round went through the middle of his foot.

More pain set his nerves on fire, but he was sure it was a through-and-through wound. In the grand scheme of things, taking a round in the foot wasn’t the worst that could happen. He could still fight, and the idiot who was firing blind had just given him an opportunity. He reached up, grabbed the man by the weapon and pulled him over the bar.

The guard cursed as he tried to resist, but Coop was far stronger and was able to brace against the bar’s foundation. The guy came up and over while Coop twisted. The guard’s wrist broke and he lost the weapon as he fell head first to the floor. That dazed the guy, and let Coop react. He could have shot the asshole in the face, but he wasn’t sure if he should. With all the investigations happening since the terrorist attack, and the ones that were going to result from this clusterfuck, he didn’t need more people looking to closely at him. So, instead of ending the guard, Coop just kicked him firmly in the face. It still royally fucked up the man, Coop made sure he was fugly for life, but the guy was still alive.

Coop now had a weapon, and it looked like the guards were waiting to see if their buddy was going to come out on top. They didn’t have a problem firing into the crowd of fleeing patrons, but with one of their own in the mix they held their fire. Coop used the time to finish the second Molotov and chucked it when maneuvering. He popped up from behind the bar away from where the second cocktail landed, and tried to hit, or at least suppress, the guards. He got one in the shoulder, and counted three more before he had to duck back down.

What he didn’t see, and what scared him a lot more than the three remaining guards, was Mike. His big buddy should have been getting in on the action, but he was nowhere to be seen. Coop knew nothing would keep his battle buddy from jumping into the fray to help, so whatever it was must be serious. That added a whole other element to the situation. He needed to move and move quick.

Sirens started to wail above and foam shot down from the ceiling like thickly packed snow to smother the flames. Coop used the distraction to vault the bar again and make for a nearby door. Surprisingly, no rounds reached out to try and bring him down, but that didn’t mean he slowed down. He hit the door at a full run and crashed through to the other side. The hallway looked empty, but Coop didn’t trust it, so he beat down another door until it relented and he got better cover.

<Any day now guys.> Coop and Mike hadn’t entered the Oasis with any communications gear because it would have been picked up by the revolving door’s scanners. However, there had to be people streaming out of the place, yelling about a fire, and if the suppression system went off then it must have triggered some alarm. With all of that going on, the rest of Bravo Team acting as the QRF should be in the building any second.

As if on cue, Coop heard loud voices yelling from the other room. He gave it a few seconds to see if any gunfire was exchanged, but when it wasn’t he felt it was ok to come out. He stepped out of his little hiding place and was immediately cold cocked by what felt like a battleship at full speed. He crashed to the floor while his head spun and stars overwhelmed his vision. Instinct brought the weapon up and fired a few times in the direction he’d been attacked, but he didn’t know if he’d hit anything until he blinked away the bright lights clouding his vision. He didn’t see anyone, so he’d missed. He flexed his jaw experimentally. It hurt like a bitch, but it wasn’t broken. Whoever hit him had been tough and fast.

“Cooper!” Eve’s voice breached the mental fugue threatening his head. It was possible he had a minor concussion too, but he focused on her voice and hobbled toward the door he’d smashed through just a minute before.

“I’m here.” He emerged to a scene of destruction. A few bodies of patrons were down. Sullivan was looking them over while the SGM watched the guards and Eve looked for him. It seemed when presented with more opponents, the men surrendered without a fight.

<Chicken shits.> Coop spat out a glob of blood. He’d bit his tongue when punched, and the blood was welling up in his mouth.

“Geez,” Eve looked him over with concern in her eyes.

With the action over, Coop’s adrenaline cut off and he started to feel his injuries. The foot obviously hurt the worst and left a trail of blood. The side of his leg burned from a flesh wound a guard had fired when he was making his break for the bar. Other than that, and the ache in his jaw from the unknown assailant, he was ok.

“Mike!” Coop turned away from Eve and hobbled toward the last place he saw his big teammate. He didn’t have to search anymore. Mike was right where Coop left him.

“Get a medic!” Coop knew the term might betray them as military but he didn’t give a shit.

Mike was lying in a pool of his own blood. He looked a white as a sheet while his hands covered a gruesome wound in his abdomen. The blackening around the area said it was from an energy weapon, and without armor the big guy was defenseless.

“Tried to get out of the way,” Mike weakly explained when Coop bent down beside him with a grimace.

“You’re gonna be fine.” Coop didn’t know if that was the truth, but who told someone they weren’t going to make it. “They just took a few kilos off you.”

Mike didn’t laugh at the joke. “It was the guy in the room with the girl. Pulled a pistol and shot at me when you went over the railing. The girl ran off that way.” He pointed to an exit door at the far end before the pathway started to curve up to the third floor. “Way to leave me hanging.”

Coop had a comeback locked and loaded, but Sullivan showed up and shouldered him aside. As the Bravo Team medic, Sullivan had all the stuff needed to stabilize Mike before they could get him back to the hospital on base.

Coop stood up to find Eve standing beside him. She looked down and Mike with rage in her eyes. Apparently, she didn’t like one of their team getting BBQ’d any more than he did.

“What the hell happened, Coop?” She asked, her voice calm, but devoid of emotion.

“Someone I never thought I’d see again showed up.” He left it at that despite the questions in Eve’s eyes. He’d save it for the AAR.

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Hailey’s Tale – Part 1

Hailey Marshall

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

“Take care of yourself.” She saw Coop hesitate before leaning in for a final kiss. It wasn’t as passionate as the ones from the previous night. There was a finality to this one. It was a goodbye kiss.

Deep down Hailey Marshall knew she would never see Mark Cooper again. He was going off to be a space marine like in the holos. He’d fight the evil Eastern Block across the galaxy, maybe get lucky and live to retirement, but most likely, he’d die on some shithole, partially-terraformed world. She didn’t want that for Coop. Not after all they’d been through together.

Coop wasn’t her boyfriend. That was just a term that corporations wrote on greeting cards and put in holos to moisten tween’s panties in the burbs. Hailey knew it was all bullshit. Coop was a friend who happened to be a boy. He protected her from the dumber assholes who tried to grab her ass or do worse, and she protected him from the whores whose snatch would rot his dick off, or wanted him to put a baby in them so they could get the extra BSA calories. It was a fucked up world, but they made a great team as they trudged through all the shit. They looked out for each other. Sure, the sex was awesome, but that was the cherry on top, not the cake.

Coop pulled away from the kiss, turned, and walked away without looking back. She tried to will the tears away, but they came anyway. She worried about him. Coop knew his way around the PHA, but the outside world was a whole different beast. She knew he was going to fall flat on his face like a newborn baby trying to walk for the first time, and he was stubborn enough to keep falling on his face until he couldn’t get back up. She admired that persistence. She just hoped it didn’t get him killed.

More important than her worry for Coop, was the unknown of what her own future held. She spun the six shooter in her hand, counted the three homemade rounds for the fifth time, and then snapped it closed. It made a satisfying click, and she stuck the gun in the back of her pants. The cold steel sent a comforting shiver up her spine. That was about the only good thing she had going for her. Coop might have talked to Jimmy up on eighteen, but Jimmy was a pussy. He’d fold the first time someone stuck a blade in his face.

She heard something mumbled through the thin polyplast wall. Coop was giving the final finger to his dad. That was something she regretted she couldn’t fix. Walter Cooper was a complicated man. He’d abandoned his son to secure their tower from the roving gangs, cartels, cops, and other insidious institutions that battled for control of the PHA streets. Coop never realized how lucky he had it living in a protected tower.

A dark memory rose to the surface. It was the middle of the night, and she awoke when a loud bang echoed through her apartment. She was only six, but she knew what the bang and vibration of her door getting kicked open felt like. She didn’t see her father rush out of the room, but she heard the stranger yell at him. Her father always told her to hide under the bed if she heard yelling, so that’s what she did. Someone else yelled, and then Hailey’s door was thrown open. Her mother rushed in with a look of terror on her face.

She opened her mouth to yell something, but then her body jerked spastically, her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and she collapsed to the floor. She hit hard without trying to stop her fall. A new shadow fell across the room, highlighted by the moonlight coming in from the window in the hall. She didn’t see who it was, but she’d never forget the smell on the person. It was body odor mixed with some toxic chemical concoction. It made her want to vomit, but she forced herself to swallow. If she gagged, it would only alert the attacker to her presence. She stared into her mom’s unconscious face before someone grabbed the unconscious woman’s leg and dragged her from the room.

Hailey was too young to know what happened next, but when she was old enough to figure it out, she wanted to hunt down those fuckers and cut their balls off. It was the least they deserved. Coop had never had to deal with the constant fear of being attacked during the night, raped, and he had his dad to thank for that.

The door slammed, and Walter’s laugh, brought Hailey back to reality. <He’s gone.> She took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, and put all the memories of her former friend, co-conspirator, and lover in a box in the back of her mind. She sealed it tight, placed it right beside the memory of the home invasion, and locked it all away.

<Suck it up,> she told herself before heading out of Coop’s barren room and into the rest of the apartment. Like Coop, she doubted she’d be here again any time soon.

Walter stood in the hallway staring at the closed front door. He looked so much like Coop had only thirty seconds ago, when Coop hesitated before the goodbye kiss, that she had to stifle a smile. Walter sensed her presence and turned to her, smothering the emotion on his face.

“He told me to look after you or he’d cut my balls off,” Walter shrugged as he returned to his chair in front of the family room’s holoscreen.

“I can take care of myself,” she replied defiantly.

“Sure you can.” Walter waved over his shoulder nonchalantly. She wasn’t sure if he agreed with her, or was mocking her. “But do me a favor and go see Jimmy. If you don’t, he’ll bug the shit out of me.”

She rolled her eyes, but agreed. Despite Walter and Coop’s complicated relationship, she’d always gotten along just fine with him. Plus, any favor she could call in was worth its weight in gold. Despite her boast, without Coop watching her back she felt more vulnerable than she had in years.

That reality became even clearer as she rode the elevator up to the eighteenth floor. Men watched her out of the corner of their eyes. Hailey knew she looked good for a PHA Rat, and tried to keep it that way. She was too skinny, but who wasn’t in the PHA. She meticulously maintained her platinum blonde cornrows. Not only did it give her a more exotic look, but it didn’t let bitches tear out chunks of her hair if she got in a brawl. Usually that didn’t matter because she was fast and knew how to fight, but now wasn’t a time to take chances. She kept her hand behind her back and on the handle of the pistol until she reached her floor. She disembarked without incident.

She breathed a sigh of relief in from her mask as she walked to Jimmy’s apartment. <Coop is gone for ten minutes and I’m already paranoid.> Experience told her paranoia kept people alive.

She knocked loudly on Jimmy’s door. Coop’s big friend must have been waiting just inside, because the seal’s deactivated with a hiss, and a rush of fresh air escaped as he immediately opened up. Hailey hurried inside, but not because she wanted to be with the big man, but because she didn’t want to waste the good air. Clean air was expensive in the PHA.

“Uh…hey, Hailey.” Jimmy was ten centimeters taller, and ten kilos heavier, than Coop.  He tried to lean casually against the door frame, but misjudged the distance. He stumbled when his elbow slipped off the lip of metal and clanged into the door with a dull thud. He tried to hide the pain as it shot up and down his arm, but failed miserably.

Hailey tried really hard not to roll her eyes. “Just because Coop wanted you to look out for me doesn’t mean I need your help!” she spat. Her emotions were still raw from Coop’s goodbye, her flashback, and the short conversation with Walter. “I can take care of myself, so don’t try anything. I’m not some slut who’s going to fawn all over you because you’re a big, strong man. Don’t expect me to suck or fuck you. If you do, I’ll make you less of a man if you know what I mean.”

Jimmy gulped as he reached up and adjusted his glasses. “Yeah…no…I mean yes…I mean, I know you can handle yourself. I’ve just got your back.” He held up his hands in a placating gesture.

<That’s what I’m afraid of.> Hailey could see it in the way Jimmy held himself, the way his eyes widened when someone started yelling, or his clumsiness when she first entered. He was a soft soul.

There wasn’t anything wrong with that, and maybe in another life it would have been a good thing, but this was the PHA, and an attitude like that could get you killed. <Still, if it comes down to it. It’s better to have two bodies instead of one, and even better when that second body can’t run as fast as me. At the very least he’ll provide a distraction while I escape.> Hailey didn’t feel nearly as bad about that thought as she should have. Unlike Jimmy, her soul was cold and full of scars.

 

2 Month’s later

 

<Stupid, Hailey…stupid…stupid!> Her breath came in staggered waves as she sprinted down the deserted street. Or at least they seemed deserted.

It all started with a stroke of good fortune. Jimmy was walking Hailey back from getting their weekly BSA rations. They’d been casually living together for a couple of months. Jimmy might be a pussy, but he was a good roommate. She could feel his eyes linger on her a moment too long, and she could immediately tell when the poor guy had blue balls, but to his credit, he hadn’t tried anything. He was actually a nice guy. She should have listened to him.

They took a shortcut on the way home. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day. The cold and shadows had been driven back for the moment and with it some of the gangs. She knew for a fact the concealed hole in the side of the abandoned building was rarely used, and apparently, someone had the same idea as her. The air duct was big enough that she could walk in hunched over, and with the light piercing in through the rusted-through metal, she could see clearly down its length. The bundle in a brown duffle bag wasn’t something you saw in abandoned air duct every day, especially when it was filled with high-grade pharmaceuticals.

Jimmy said to leave it, but she didn’t listen. She wanted to live on something other than scraps. She wanted to take a shower with actual water instead of scalding air. She wanted to take a ride in an air-car instead of crawling through an abandoned building’s HVAC system.

Her wants got the best of her. She should have known it was a dead drop for some powerful people. Selling stolen merchandise, especially when she didn’t know who it’d been stolen from, wasn’t her strong suit. Just like avoiding an ambush when trying to sell the merchandise wasn’t Jimmy’s.

Hailey’s old, horrible thoughts about him being nothing but a sack of meat that facilitated her escape became a reality. Neither of them had heard or seen the woman that emerged from the shadows of the meeting location. The first indication Hailey had that something was happening was when the tip of a blade erupted from Jimmy’s chest, and his head exploded in a mess of bone, blood, and brains. It hadn’t been necessary to shoot Jimmy in the head after impaling him, but whoever this was decided to send a message. Hailey didn’t wait around to see what the assassin had in store for her.

Hailey’s legs burned with lactic acid as she fled. <There!> She spotted an alley, and took the ninety-degree turn at full speed. She ricocheted off the far wall with her bare shoulder, scraped a few layers of skin off, which drew a steady trickle of blood. She’d feel it tomorrow, but she ignored the pain. There would be no more tomorrow if the assassin caught her.

She didn’t stop to listen for the assassin’s approach. She hadn’t heard her before when she’d been paying attention. So Hailey doubted she would hear her now with her heart pounding like a bass drum in her ears. She ran down the alley and didn’t look back. The building on her right was partially collapsed. This was an abandoned factory district, back from when Buffalo’s economic fortunes had turned around in the early twenty-first century. Now, it was a dilapidated wasteland, but it was a great place to hide.

The alley ahead of her came to an abrupt end. A sheet-metal wall of the factory on the right had collapsed. Jagged metal barred her way, except for a small opening near the bottom. Hailey didn’t even slow down as she doze forward into the small hole. She felt the sharp edges cut into her clothes and flesh, but she scrambled forward. She sliced the palms of her hands and scuffed up her knees as she crawled. After fifteen meters, she emerged out of the other side safe and alive…for now.

<I need to get home!> she thought frantically, as she pressed her bleeding hands into her shirt.

She took a cautious look over her shoulder and found nothing. She turned back around and expected to see the assassin standing right in front of her with a pistol pointed between her eyes, and a blade ready to plunge into her heart…but again she saw nothing.

<Maybe this was my lucky break, not the duffle bag.> There were tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of narcotics in that bag, and she hadn’t given it a second thought when she fled. Someone clearly wanted the drugs more than her, and she was fine with that.

She looked around to gauge her position and knew she was lost, so she pointed herself east and started walking. It was nearly dark by the time she came within sight of her tower. It was that ominous time between light and dark when the real evil started to emerge. That’s how her momma always described it. In reality, the cops were undergoing a shift change so there were fewer of them on the streets. With the light going down, and the resulting diminished visibility, those with nefarious evening plans were getting prepared. Those people who just wanted to live their lives were busy getting inside before the second group got their act together and the first group came back out in force. What that left were quiet but mean streets, and it wasn’t somewhere that an attractive, wounded woman wanted to be.

<Almost there.> Hailey had been motivating herself for hours as she navigated the familiar and unfamiliar portions of the PHA. She was tired, hungry, frazzled, and she just wanted to get home. Although, Jimmy’s apartment wasn’t going to be home.

The cops might have not found the body yet, but if they did, the access code to his apartment would be suspended pending an investigation that would ultimately lead to someone new taking the room. That left Hailey homeless. She couldn’t go back to her parents. Mom was a junky and dad was in jail last time she checked, which only left one real option.

Walter Cooper said he’d keep an eye on her. It was time to see if that leant itself to the hospitality of his home now that Coop was off doing whatever. If he did, that was great. If not, at least she was still in the tower and had twenty-four hours to figure out her next move.

She came to the intersection a block away from the tower and stopped. She pressed herself close to the wall and looked around the corner. She saw nothing. It looked safe to cross, but she still gave it a minute. If someone had been tracking her they could have timed her crossing the intersection. Waiting a minute was going to throw that off and reveal them.

She waited sixty seconds and nothing happened. At a sprint she ran across the intersection half expecting gunfire to cut her down. The assassin was still out there. Just because Hailey couldn’t see her didn’t mean she wasn’t lurking.

Nothing reached out to end her life, and Hailey slammed into a wall on the other side. Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest, and her blood sounded like Niagara Falls in her ears. <But I’m almost there.> She could see the outline of the guards protecting the entrance to the tower. They had weapons slung and eyes scanning the area. Soon they’d see her coming, and if she was lucky, recognize her and come to help. She just needed to get closer.

She took a few steps forward and then everything went black. It was like someone had pulled something down over her eyes. Something synched tight around her neck, <That’s exactly what happened!> Panic flooded her mind, but she resisted it. She knew exactly what was happening.

They were called Black Hats. Hailey didn’t know how they got the name. It could have been that at some point they wore black hats, but it was probably a reference to the black bags they put over their victims’ heads. Bags that were filled with powerful sedatives, which was why she clamped her mouth closed and threw a vicious elbow in the direction she thought the man was. She aimed low.

There was a grunt as her elbow made contact with flesh. She knew she’d hit her target, because she could feel the person’s legs with her elbow and tricep, but it didn’t result in the satisfying scream a man gave when you hit him in the nuts.

<They aren’t all men?> She tried to control her fear, but it surprised her.

Black Hats were the middle men to the various criminal enterprises that recruited in the PHA. By “recruitment” she meant kidnapping and selling into slavery. You’d think slavery would be gone in the 25th century, but you’d be wrong. It wasn’t based on race or any of the other traditional factors. It was about the strong using the weak to do shit they didn’t want to do themselves, or have to pay others to do. There was no better place to get slaves than from a place no one would miss them, and where the cops wouldn’t really investigate.

Hailey always thought of it as a man’s job, since the sex trade was the big draw for PHA girls, but apparently women participated as well.

Hailey’s lungs started to burn as she continued to throw elbows at her attackers. She figured out it was plural when the bag around her neck tightened after she’d hit the black hatter right in the snatch. She lashed out with her feet and hit nothing. She reached behind her to claw at the person’s eyes, but they deftly avoided her. She struggled with everything she had, but she couldn’t do the thing that would have helped her the most…screamed.

A fist slammed into her gut like a battering ram and forced the last trickle of air from her lungs. Hailey’s body didn’t have a choice but to involuntarily respond. She gulped in a big helping of air, and felt the drugs hit her body immediately. Her limbs went limp, and all the struggle went out of her.

Even her thoughts became fuzzy and incoherent. <Fuuuuuuck,> was that last thing she could think before the pseudo darkness of the hood became the blackness of unconsciousness.

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