Two Worlds – Chapter 117

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Alcubierre Bubble, Space

 <Punch…dodge…counterpunch…block.> Coop ignored the pain that shot through his arm and into his shoulder. All things considered, he was doing a kick ass job.

The 2223rd and 2224th Infantry Battalions had finally deployed to York Sector in the Rim, and they were flying there in style. Normally, transportation was handled by the fleet of troop transport ships the Fleet had ready, but things didn’t always work out the way they were supposed to; especially when it was an emergency deployment. Suddenly having to find a ride for two thousand grunts and all of their gear was a monumental logistical task. Luckily, this wasn’t the first time the Commonwealth had faced a situation like this.

The answer to the problem was interstellar cruise lines.

Coop thought that had come out of left field when him, Mike, and the replacements for the 2222nd were marched toward a half-kilometer long luxury liner. The crew stood next to the boarding ramp providing water, reassurance, and thanks for everyone’s service to the Commonwealth.

“The government owns a certain percentage of the industry. That way they earn some extra cash and always have transportation in case shit like this happens,” SSG Hightower explained as he led the way down to the lower decks where the HI enlisted were going to be berthed.

The SSG had a quick word with the officers and all the HI were able to break away from their units. Building espirit de corps and optimizing operational integrity by interunit cross training was the official line they were selling the brass, but really they just wanted to hang out and do their own thing.

That “own thing” wasn’t all fun and games.

Coop backed away and circled, shaking out his arms and spitting out a loogie thick with blood.

“Keep your hands up, Cooper.” SSG Hightower motioned a proper defensive stance. “You keep dropping your arms when you get tired. Suck it up.”

Among other things the five star luxury liner had available, one was a kick ass gym. It wasn’t nearly big enough for a bunch of ground-pounders who had nothing better to do for the multiple-day trip to New Lancashire other than work out, PMCS gear, or do pointless cleaning details. The place was always packed to the brim, but the one place that usually had a little bit of space was the anti-grav pit.

Normally, to blue-blooded guests the pit was a great way to simulate sky diving or any other number of stimulating activity. The HI had a different purpose for it, but it was no less stimulating.

The SSG had turned up the gravity to triple earth-norm and conducted combatives drills every few hours. That was why Coop was currently sweating, wore protective padding on his head, fists, and shins, and was bleeding from a cut lip.

Coop hadn’t taken the hit lying down though. Even if he lost, the SSG knew he’d been in a fight; but from the way things were going Coop thought he might actually stand a chance.

<I’ve got this.> Coop circled, rushed in to do a quick combination, and then feinted a retreat. When the SSG came after him, Coop unleashed a devastating side kick meant for the SSG’s torso.

<Motherfu…!> The kick never landed. The SSG smoothly slide to the side while wrapping his arm around Coop’s leg.

That left Coop hopping there with the SSG securely holding him by the calf. If this had been a real fight the SSG could have done some serious damage to Coop’s knee or ankle. All he had to do was yank one way and push the other and Coop would need a visit to the Battalion surgeon to repair torn tendons or broken bones.

But this was training, and thankfully SSG Hightower didn’t ruin Coop’s day. But that didn’t mean the SSG let him get away from looking like an idiot.

Coop hopped around trying in vain to lash out and score a hit on the SSG. He didn’t want to take the fight to the ground, the SSG’s ground game was light-years ahead of his, so he was left their trying to think of a way to counter the NCO’s iron grip.

The crowd around the edges of the pit ooohed and ahhhed as the two giants went at it. Bets were being taken, and people were screaming as they lost half their paycheck on these little bouts. Coop had put down a few bucks on himself to win this fight. The SSG had the better odds by a long shot, but you had to take risks to earn rewards.

<Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen today.> His eyes scanned the crowd until they met a familiar set of brown ones.

For the life of him, Coop couldn’t remember the girl’s name. He had the curves of her body memorized, but her name continued to elude him. <Jill…Jamie…Gisel?> He was a little rattled from the fight.

She was a PFC from another unit so there was no conflict of interest. Not that Coop would have given a shit if there was. They’d been fucking like bunnies over the last couple of days, and he could tell from the look in her eyes that he’d be getting another type of workout when this fight was over. His vision was much better than an average human so he saw the way her smartcloth tightened as she breathed deeply. Some sweat dripped from her forehead as she watched the two HI go at it, and the way she slightly bit her bottom lip was all the nonverbal communication that Coop needed.

He gave her a smile, which ignited an animal passion on her face, but that was cut short when a shot of pain rampaged through Coop’s body. The SSG still had his leg in a firm grip, and had noticed Coop was distracted; so he started repeatedly pummeling him in the hamstring. Getting punched in the hamstring hurt like a bitch, especially when the painful shockwave reverberated up toward his nuts.

Four punches and Coop lost his balance and went tumbling to the ground. Once he was down it was quick. The SSG fell on top of Coop, knocking the wind out of him, and using the momentary lung spasm to pass Coop’s guard. Straddling on top of him, the SSG unleashed a few punches to Coop’s unprotected face before pulling back.

“You’re done, Cooper. Not bad, but not great either. I will concede you were better than last time. “

Coop felt like an idiot thinking he could take the more experienced NCO, but he accepted the man’s hand and gingerly got to his feet. Most of the crowd was cheering, but there were a few boos for those who’d lost their money. Coop gave them all the finger and then locked eyes with, <Jennifer, that’s it..wait…no…> It didn’t matter. If eyes could suck a dick then she was going to town on him.

“Ok, that’s it!” Hightower took control of the rambunctious group with a few loud words. “Shit, shower, shave and be ready for formation at 1330. We’ll see what the afternoon’s tasks are.”

That gave Coop and what’s-her-face time for a forty five minutes quicky. From the way his leg spasmed when he put pressure on it, he’d probably just have to lay there on his back and take it from her. Not that there was a problem with that.

She approached him, her eyes locked on like a tractor beam with another woman in tow. The other woman, a PVT by the rank insignia on her shoulder, had a hungry look on her face.

“Oh sweet baby Jesus.” Coop muttered to himself thinking about what fun the three of them could have together.

Of course, when something awesome was about to happen to him something had to immediately ruin it.

“Attention all personnel! Soldiers of the 2222nd and 2223rd report immediately to Observation Deck Alpha. Attention all personnel! Soldiers of the 2224th report to Observation Deck Bravo. Attention all personnel.” The message repeated.

Coop looked over to the SSG who just shrugged and started yelling for people to haul ass to their assigned observation deck. Coop looked back and the two women were gone, already scrambling to get where they needed to be. The loss of the three-way hurt Coop’s ball more than the hamstring punches, but he put that aside to get to observation deck alpha along with everyone else.

Observation Deck Alpha was mind-blowing. They’d styled it like an ancient Greek amphitheater. Everything was ornately crafted stone or marble. Even the seats looked cold and uncomfortable, but they looked out onto a thick piece of armorplast and beyond that was the open void of space – or it would be once they exited the Alcubierre Bubble.

The stadium-style seating only sat about five hundred, and since Coop got there later he was forced to stand in the back. Not that it mattered much. No one would be able to see over him anyway, so he leaned against the back wall and let people move around him. He kept his eyes peeled for, <Jean, I’m positive that’s it. Or…maybe not. I know it begins with a J. Is it Jean or Gene?>

Whatever the case he didn’t see her in the mass of people filtering in and mingling. They stood around aimlessly for five minutes before anything happened.

“All hands, prepare for transition in three…two…one…”

Coop watched the armorplast as they went from an Alcubierre bubble traveling faster than the speed of light to normal space travel. Everything in Alcubierre looked like white static. At “three” a tiny black dot appeared in the static and over the next two seconds it rapidly expanded as the liner shed the bubble and popped into normal space.

There was a collective gasp at the transition, and then the rapid return of conversation.

“Lock it up!” A tall woman with SGM insignia on her shoulders marched out onto the stage. “Battalion, Atten-hut!”

A thousand people braced to attention as a man with the golden stripe of a lieutenant commander walked out onto the stage.

“At ease.” A podium rose from the stone and the 2223rd’s commander stopped behind it.

Behind him the armorplast stared to display icons and information. Not only was it a protective barrier between the soldiers and space, but it was also the biggest holo-display Coop had ever seen. He recognized more of the icons from his training, and one stood out beyond all the others.

The theater went silent as everyone recognized the two crash buoys.

“Welcome to York Sector System 1552.” The LCDR’s voice was particularly emotional. “While we were all training, are brothers and sisters in the fleet were out here fighting and dying.” He tapped his PAD and information enhanced on the large display behind him.

DD 547 Barton and DD 783 Nightingale appeared along with a full rundown of their specs. Coop did some quick math and his stomach sank.

“We fought a battle with the Blockies in this system less than a month ago. We lost two destroyers in that battle. Don’t let the politicians or media try to convince you that this was a skirmish, or a tussle, or us and the Blockies just bloodying each other’s noses. This was a BATTLE, and we lost over five hundred spacers and infantry in that fight.” He fell silent and let everyone take that in.

“I’m not showing or telling you this to bum you out or ruin this nice little pleasure cruise we’ve been on for the last few days. I’m telling you this so this battalion is ready to get dropped in the shit. Make no mistake, this is a war zone. We are at war with the Blockies in this sector no matter what the politicians say in New Washington. If you come across a Blockie soldier you will engage and destroy them with extreme prejudice. Am I understood!?”

“Yes, Sir!” Coop winced as a thousand voices laced with anger roared through the enclosed space.

“Good.” The commander looked around and gave his soldiers a nod. “Sergeant Major.”

The woman strode up to the podium and started to run through a basic operations order of what they were getting into. Coop didn’t pay attention to most of it because this wasn’t his battalion, but he paid close attention when they went over the rules of engagement. Those would be universal throughout the sector.

There wasn’t any “only fire unless fired upon” crap. The enemy was defined and easily identifiable. The Blockies wouldn’t hide and neither would the Commonwealth. When they met in battle there would be no misunderstanding who was who.

Coop found himself wanting to go another ten rounds with SSG Hightower. His adrenaline was pumping and he was amped up when they were dismissed a few hours later. They were scheduled to be in the system for a while to drop off two companies to reinforce the brand new FOB Dietrich – named after the fallen task force commander who’d died in the battle.

The extra time gave Coop time to find Jeannette – it turned out that was her name. When he found her, he picked her up, threw her over his shoulder, and marched her right back to his room. She didn’t complain. If anything, the action turned her on even more. The third woman didn’t tag along though. Jeannette wanted him all to herself.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 113

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thor, Asgard System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

<Seriously…this is it?> Coop stood on the busy sidewalk outside a pub.

A holographic neon sign shone above the door. It showed a pirate, dancing a jig, complete with musical notes floating out of its mouth. Above him in big red letter was the watering hole’s name: The Peg Leg. Coop looked between the name and the holographic pirate and saw that his right leg was missing below the knee with a wooden peg in its place. In an age of regenerative therapies, seeing someone with a prosthetic was beyond weird.

“I think we’ve got the right place.” Mike pushed passed Coop and activated the door.

Cool air blossomed onto the sidewalk the moment the metal hissed open. Rich smells wafted from the pub. The savory scents of cooked meats were the strongest followed by the bitter tang of various alcoholic beverages. Beneath it all was a bit of BO, but that was just a fact of life on a planet where the average nighttime temperature in the fall was thirty-two degrees Celsius.

“Get in!”

“Shut the door!”

“Who the fuck are you?!”

A variety of greetings were thrown at the two young HI troopers as they stepped into the space. It was bigger than it looked from the outside, and for good reason. Every man and woman in the room was over two hundred centimeters tall and had to weigh nearly that. Even the women at the bar, in smartcloth sun dresses and short skirts looked like they could break a normal man over their knees.

This was the local HI bar, and it was invitation only.

“It’s ok, they’re with us.” SSG Hightower and CPL Anders showed up quick. “They’re newly assigned to the Quad-Deuce.

The statement had an immediate effect on the group. It sobered them up quick. Most turned back to their drinks with a somber look, and one couple at the bar even wiped away a few tears. Coop caught it all but didn’t say anything. Whatever was going on he’d know soon enough.

“We’re back here.” The SSG led the way to  two adjoining booths at the back of the room. They were semi-private and already had a respectable amount of booze on them. There were ten people present, and with Coop and Mike that made it the even dozen. The full complement of the 2222nd, 2223rd, and 2224th’s HI troopers on Thor were present.

“Now that we’re all here I’ll start with introductions. Everyone, this is Private First Class Mark Cooper and Private First Class Michael Enders. They’re replacements for the 2222nd right out of training from Mars. Anyone remember Master Sergeant Smith?” There were a few laughs but mostly shrugs. “If Smith trained them then we know they know their shit. More so, they both saw action in a riot back on Earth.” That perked a few ears up. “Strictly nonlethal, but they got to do more than shoot, move, and communicate against instructors or machines. Cooper here got a CAM out of it…and a formal reprimand for excessive use of force.”

Coop cringed at the bit of information, but it was quickly washed away by the ruckus cheer from the group. Hightower grinned over at Coop and motioned his arms for everyone to settle down.

“Enders also handled himself with distinction during the evacuation process. We’re glad to have two newbies who know their heads from their assholes.” The SSG finished up and gave Coop and Mike the floor.

“Uhumm,” Coop coughed, not really sure what to say. “First, just call me Coop, and I’m going to do my best to pull my weight, not die at a bad time, and kill people that need killin’. That’s my job and I plan to do it well.”

Giant steins of beer slammed against the table in approval as Coop stepped back.

Mike stepped up. He was nearly twenty centimeters larger after their enhancements and even though they were still new to their bodies he was one of the biggest guys in the room. He was – as always – a man of few words.

“I’m Mike. Coop and I’ve got your backs.”

There was some laughing and more pounding of approval.

“Short and sweet.” Hightower took back control. “Now, a brief intro for this rowdy bunch.” He started with the 2224th’s people on the right. “You’ve got Staff Sergeant Deer and Staff Sergeant Walden there. The lovely lady is SGT Genesee, and the butt-ugly guy is SGT Wood. The two over there trying to act like they aren’t friends with benefits are Corporal Raven and Private First Class Hill.” The last two troopers blushed but didn’t deny their extracurricular activities.

“Nice to meet you,” PFC Hill stood up and extended her hand for the 2223rd. She was shorter and leaner than Coop, but her blue eyes were sharp. “Glad I’m not the fucking new guy anymore.”

That sent a round of cheers up from the 2223rd’s guys and gals.

“You already know Corporal Anders.” Hightower waved over to his own small group of troopers. “That’s Sergeant Colony and our last member is Private First Class Greenview. Greenie was the FNG before Hill.”

“I’ll be happy to pass down a few words of wisdom.” Greenview had a charming grin that Coop had seen on more than one lady-killer. “First off, Gunney Topper might seem like a hardass but he’s just trying to keep you all alive. Second, do whatever Staff Sergeant Quigg says or you’ll know the true meaning of hardass. Lastly,” his face became serious, “Remember your training. You’re support for the grunts not their savior. If you forget that, you and the people around you are fucked.”

A dark cloud descended over the table, and Coop didn’t dare ask about it. Not even to figure out who the GYSGT and SSG were.

“We’ve hailed our new troopers. Now for the farewells.” The SSG grabbed two big steins of beer and handed them to Coop and Mike before grabbing his own.

“Tonight we say farewell to Corporal Sienna Pace and Sergeant Mitchell Takahashi. They were our colleagues, our friends, and our family. We salute them.”

They all drank.

“We remember them.”

They all drank again.

“And above all, we will avenge them.”

Everyone tipped their steins back and kept drinking. Coop and Mike followed their example and chugged their drinks until they were drained dry. Then, they lifted them high and smashed them on the ground.

No one in the bar turned their head when a dozen polyplast containers shattered. In fact, everyone in the bar started chugging what they had before smashing their glasses as well.

Coop watched the whole ritual with fascination, and surprisingly felt a dull ache work its way into his heart. He’d never met CPL Pace or SGT Takahashi. He couldn’t have picked them out of a lineup, or even told anyone they existed until a minute ago. But in this moment he felt the pain of their loss.

These were two people who’d done what he’d done. They’d gone through the rigors of Basic. They’d survived the instruction of someone like MSG Smith and been entrusted with the protection of hundreds of infantry soldiers. They were HI. Just like Coop was HI. That made them family, and it always hurt when you lost family.

He walked up to the bar and held over his GIC for the bartender. “Another round for my people.”

He didn’t care that it wiped out what remained of the extra cash he’d earned on Luna. His family was hurting, and they needed to drown their sorrows today so they’d be ready to fight tomorrow.

“Cheers, Coop.” Hightower raised his glass to Coop as the bartender delivered the drinks. “That’s a class act right there.”

That drink wasn’t the last. The dozen HI troopers were drinking late into the night. The older veterans shared their war stories, legends, and the absolute bullshit they’d heard or witnessed during their careers. The educational lessons lasted until last call. The group stumbled back to their homes to grab a few hours a sleep before assembling for morning formation.

There was no PT the next morning. They assembled with all their gear for a twelve month deployment to the Rim. Two battalions and some change were heading to war, and sixteen of those two thousand soldiers were nursing some pretty bad hangovers to start it off.

 

***

 

Eve Berg

Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Several tons of pressure drove down into the automaton’s joint as Eve stomped on its neck. There was a sickening crunch of metal and circuitry. The machine trembled like a man in its death throes before going still. Just to be sure, Eve put two rounds into its head before moving on.

The sprawling structure her class was clearing rivaled the Dojo back at Stewart-Benning in size. It was a maze of rooms, open spaces, and just about every different type of environment a Ranger would find themselves in.

“Room 547 clear, one hostile down, ready to move.” She radioed in her SITREP and waited for this iteration’s patrol leader to send her more coordinates.

She had already taken her turn as the class leader and exceeded expectations. She’d commanded a raid on a small town and accomplished all of her mission objectives with no casualties.

She sent a series of commands to her LACS while she waited and a nozzle extended toward her mouth. She took three large gulps from the water bladder imbedded in her armor before letting it retract. She was still hungry and tired, but not quite as thirsty. They’d been fighting for the last thirty hours nonstop. It was a test of endurance. They needed to show the instructors that they could remain sharp after days of fighting.

<Rangers never quit. Rangers lead the way.> Eve repeated the mantra a few times in her mind before the next rally point appeared on her HUD.

“Moving.” She walked to the door and moved to either side to check if it was clear. Then, just to make sure, she stuck her gauntleted hand out. Immediately, rounds started to ping off the architecture around her.

“Contact. Same location.” She checked the HUD for her teammates’ locations to ensure there wouldn’t be any blue on blue. “Engaging.”

She backed up to the edge of the room and toggled down her menus to find what she was looking for. ENGAGE GRAV-BOOTS. She hit the button with her eyes and felt her legs start to vibrate from the knees down.

The grav-boot function was something unique to the V3 LACS. V2’s didn’t have it because it was too expensive and they didn’t have the battery capacity for sustained operational use. V3’s were unique to the SPECOPS community for now, so their maintenance was manageable until the R&D people could figure out a way to mass-produce the V3’s distinctive aspects affordably. But that was for the bean counters to worry about. Eve only cared about what she could do with it.

Despite the candidates’ early expectations, grav-boots weren’t rocket boots. They couldn’t blast around the place defying gravity like a 21st century superhero. A more accurate way to describe the technology was grav-skates, and Eve would be personally lobbying for them to change the name to avoid confusion. The boots only allowed a person to defy gravity with the use of momentum and strength. The tech could only do so much.

That was why Eve had to skate around the circumference of her room like an old-school figure skater to build up acceleration before leaving the room. When she did she shot through the doorway a meter off the ground. She went right over the walkway, over the safety railing, and into the open space that dropped a few dozen meters before abruptly ending in a concrete floor.

More automatons immediately started firing when she cleared the opening. A few rounds hit her as she angled herself to the side and skidded like she was stopping on ice, but her angle change and speed made her hard to hit. Automatons were good artificial soldiers up to a point, but expecting the unexpected just wasn’t in their programming.

Her HUD updated with their positions in a heartbeat and she started to unleash hell. Several burps of her Buss sent 3mm plasma tipped rounds downrange. They tore through the weak sheet metal walkway and chewed up one automaton. It fell over the safety rails smoking and crackling.

A round hit her shoulder and spun her around, but she adjusted and her scales did their job. With her momentum cut she started to pump her legs, pushing them out to the side in a sweeping motion, and she skated forward. She cycled her Buss to a different tube and a loud thump preceded the explosion of an EW grenade. The chaff hid her from the automatons sensors and she changed tactics again. Instead of skating down the aisle and engaging the bots directly, she changed course into the same circle she’d been doing earlier. But this time she pushed gradually with her legs. Her elevation began to climb with each circle until she was a dozen meters above where the defenders were crouching and searching for her.

She came out of her last circle going around a hundred kilometers per hour and shot forward. She set a path for a gradual arch downward and let gravity take over. The bots weren’t even looking in the right place. Her first burst took the lead automaton in the head and chewed its silicone brain into mush. The second turned and squeezed off a round, but missed before her Buss’ bellow ended its artificial life.

She pumped the boots to slow her descent and adjust course. She still hit the ground hard but she rolled with it into a combat roll, bounced back to her feet, and kept on going. The boots stopped vibrating, and the entire maneuver had cost less than one percent of her power.

“Two more tangos down in Area 156, proceeding to rally point.” She zoomed out on her HUD to see the entire complex.

They were seventy-five percent of the way through the structure. <Another ten hours and we’ll wrap this mission up with a nice little bow for the Sergeant Major.> She stopped and did a quick peek as the open area narrowed into a chokepoint that led into a single hallway a hundred meters long.

She toggled through her different visions options and identified laser tripwires all over the place. She needed to look for another ingress point to the next part of the building.

“I’m held up at,” she relayed the location. “Looking for another entrance.”

“Roger that, Ice, but haul ass. We’ve got a lot more company heading our way and need to consolidate.” A new rally point sprang to life on her HUD.

She also got a video of a wide open space at the end of the building that was quickly filling with half a battalion’s worth of automatons. In the background she could see energy weapons being wheeled into strategic locations by the artificial soldiers.

<Yeah I need to move.> She lobbed a grenade down the hallway, triggered the booby-traps and hauled ass.

This was the big one, and she wasn’t going to miss the party.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 111

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thor, Asgard System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Coop and Mike stood to the left and right of the SGT and LT at the spaceport. To Coop it seemed like a pointless show of force. It wasn’t like the fresh recruits right out of basic were going to run for the hills when they heard they were getting deployed to the ass end of nowhere.

<At least I hope not.> Coop shrugged as they watched the shuttle descend out of the sky and touch down on the far side of the spaceport.

“Corral them and get them to the transports right away.” The LT repeated his instructions for the third time in the last ten minutes.

Coop watched the LT out of his peripherals. The guy was a shavetail. Coop had picked up the term from a few of the NCOs he’d met along the way, and now he knew what they meant. The kid was young. Age-wise he was four or five years older than Coop, but everything about the guy screamed soft.

<It’s the eyes. You can always tell from the eyes.> Coop correctly surmised that the LT had never seen bloodshed before.

“Here they come.” The SGT was watching the people coming and going like a hawk, and the group of eighteen year olds with a standard military duffel bags were hard to miss. “If you’re with the 2222nd double time, people!” she snapped.

Reflexes honed in basic training took over and the sixty or seventy people broke into a trot toward them. They formed a loose half-circle around the LT.

“Welcome to the Quad-Deuce.” The LT projected his voice with a convincing amount of authority. “Usually there would be more of a welcoming committee and inprocessing in store for you over the next few days, but we don’t have that luxury.”

Ears perked up all among the group.

“Over the next day you will be processed, outfitted, and prepared to deploy.” The LT ignored a few faces paling in the crowd. “This is Private first Class Enders. He will get you transported back to HQ and begin the process. Take it from here Private.” He gestured to Mike.

Mike loomed over the new PVT’s without trying. You could do that at two hundred and fifty centimeters. “Load up,” was all Mike needed to say to get the new meat jumping.

On the flip side, that left Coop alone with the SGT and LT for the next half hour while the shuttle returned to the ship to pick up the next batch. The impromptu command team didn’t attempt any idle chit-chat and neither did Coop. He just stood there stoically wondering how Mike was wrangling the newbies, because that was their job today.

Mike and Coop had done every inprocessing bit aside from seeing the S4 for their armor, and they’d be doing that today with the rest of the new guys and gals. The rest of the time they were the designated babysitters. The rear detachment just didn’t have the personnel to watch the new soldiers and complete the inprocessing. The LT sure as shit wasn’t going to get down to the four-shop and start handing out M3s.

<About time.> Coop thought when the shuttle reappeared through the clouds and settled onto the tarmac. <Rinse and repeat.> They went through the same little speech and Coop herded his group out to the open-topped transport.

“Hey heavy.” One of the new guys piped up as they jostled around the back of the truck.

Coop didn’t get to sit in the front with the LT and SGT.

“What’s really going on?”

Coop, whose eyes had been closed to catch another couple minutes of shuteye, opened them a sliver. “It’s what it sounds like,” he responded. “We’re getting deployed as replacements.”

“Where?”

“York Sector.”

That got some grumbles among the newbies. Apparently, the rumor mill was already spitting out info about that particular section of space.

“Why are we replacements?”

“Because the soldiers there before us need replacing,” Coop snapped, and that shut them up.

They got to the Battalion HQ without any more fussing, and Coop made them join the line into the S1’s office. The clerk was good. He could do about a person a minute, but with a hundred and fiftyish soldiers that was still two and a half hours of Coop and Mike’s day standing with their thumbs up their asses.

So, they popped a squat in two chairs next to the office door and watched the newbies file in. As time went by, they got sweatier despite the AC blasting in the corner. The sun wasn’t even out yet and the temperature was starting to climb from bearable to mildly irritating.

They finally got a reprieve when they got to the S4 portion of the process. All of the candidates filed through a portable trailer that had been brought over from the much larger central issuing facility. It was packed full of Dragonscale armor and the other knickknacks of the soldiering trade. Coop and Mike bypassed the portion all together. They headed straight to the armory.

“New HI!” The rear detachment armorer called out as Coop and Mike ducked through the front door.

A few soldiers were getting things ready for weapons issue in the front, but what the two HI troopers needed was in the back.

“Pick any two you want.” The armorer led them to the open vault that held the unit’s LACS. “Call me when you’re ready to sign for it.”

Coop and Mike stepped into the gloomy space and approached the nearest sets. Step one of accepting a piece of equipment was to inventory and run a diagnostic on it. If you signed for the LACS and then something was wrong or missing you got stuck with the bill.

Coop opened up the set of armor he’d picked out. There was some grinding as old gears went into action for the first time in years. <These should have been taken out for a maintenance shake-up at least once a quarter.> Coop remembered his inventory schedule from MSG Smith’s classes.

That was the first sign something was wrong. The next was when the armor popped open.

“Oh fuck no!” Coop threw up his hands and marched out of the vault. “Armorer! What the fuck is this?!”

“What?” The other PFC looked irritated at having to come back over.

“What is this antique crap? These are V1s. V1s are only supposed to be in reserve stockpile. What the hell are they doing being issued to us?”

“This is our reserve stockpile.” The armorer stated like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Now do your job and let me do mine.”

Coop turned back to the LACS and pinched the bridge of his nose to relieve some stress. He needed a stress relief or he was going to punt that little shit halfway into orbit.

MSG Smith had given a brief class on V1s. They were the predecessor to the V2s and weren’t in use aside from SOL situations. The durosteel shell was a little thinner than the V2s, which was hazardous to Coop’s health, but the nanite scales looked to be up to date. The spine-mounted artillery cannon was 100mm instead of 125mm with only a thirty round magazine. It held fewer rounds for the shoulder-mounted rail gun and the hyper-velocity missile launcher fired six instead of eight rounds. Essentially, it was a weaker version of the V2, which was not something someone wanted when they were heading into a hot zone as a replacement for someone who’d already died with modern equipment.

The offensive and defensive differences were the most important part, but one of the most disliked aspects of the V1 was the armor’s interior. Unlike the V2’s malleable ballistic composite weave, the V1 had basic ballistic nano-gel. It made an HI trooper feel like they were partially submerged in Jell-O, and it had been universally despised by prior HI generations. Coop had never been inside a V1 to feel that hate up close and personal, but he was about to.

“Here goes nothing.” Coop slipped into the armor with a sickening sucking sound.

He immediately felt uncomfortable. The gel was lukewarm on top of everything, which made him feel like he was taking a dip in a swamp. Coop hit the INITIATE UPDATE sequence using the suit’s finger sensors and sat there while the LACS booted up.

<I’m gonna fuckin’ die.> Was Coop’s prognosis as the error messages started to flash left and right.

“We need to dunk these things in a vat of lube.” Mike sounded just as pissed.

They didn’t have a vat, but they had a locker filled with industrial strength lubricant. It took them half an hour to rinse down the suits’ exteriors so the scales didn’t stick. Then they had to open the individual joint ports and get the nozzles inside to spray critical sections while not fucking up the circuitry. After that, they had to go down the error codes one by one. They pulled up requisition forms on their PADs and went to work requesting new parts. At the end they attached their diagnostic data to the end and sent that data off to the LT, SGT, and S4.

All that got them was an ass chewing, but regulations were on the two HI troopers’ side. These LACS were deadlined. As the V1s were, they couldn’t be taken into combat. Of all the new replacements being inprocessed that made Coop and Mike the LT and SGT’s problem children. Fortunately, the two PFCs had made a new friend.

“Hahahaha!” CPL Anders laughed in their face when they called him and relayed the problem. “They’re sending you out in V1s. That sucks balls.”

“Fuck you!” Coop shot back, which only got more laughter out of the other HI.

“Don’t get excited, Cooper. I’ll be there in five. Just tell your LT not to shit a chicken just yet. HI takes care of their own.”

“Thanks.” Mike finished before cutting the connection.

Five minutes later, CPL Anders and three other large people showed up in the 2222nd’s armory. CPL Anders was in the lead, but he stepped aside to make way for a rough-looking SSG with HIGHTOWER on his CMUs.

“These the newbies?” The NCO asked.

“Yep.”

“And this is the one that hit you in the face with a sandwich?”

Anders blushed. “Yeah, but I beat his ass.”

“Still,” the SSG walked up to Coop and extended his hand. “The CPL can be a bit of a douche. Congrats on doing what many of us have wanted to for a very long time.”

“This is going to affect the good order and discipline of our unit.” Anders grumbled as the rest of the HI troopers from the 2224th laughed.

“Now, for the reason we’re really here.” The SSG walked over to the V1’s and whistled apologetically before doing a quick inspection. “Looks like you’ve done a decent job getting it movable.” He held out his hand for a PAD, which Coop readily handed over.

He liked this SSG so far.

The NCO looked over the parts needed and shook his head. “We can get you some of this stuff from our own supplies, but others you’ll have to order. The big one is the software module. You’re lucky. We were expecting you to come to us and we got the suits prepped, so we’ve got the version the regs require. I’ll get with your S4 and we’ll draw up the transfer paperwork. That’ll get them operational and ready to deploy.”

That was music to Coop’s ears. He’d be going to war in an antiquated piece of shit, but at least he’d be on the same virtual page as everyone else.

“Any chance we can get those V2’s?” Coop asked hopefully.

“Those LACS are worth over twenty million Commonwealth dollars, Private.” The SSG gave Coop a hard stare. “That’s a major transfer of property that needs to take place at the battalion commander level.”

“So no.” Coop summarized.

“Don’t worry. We’ll get you two squared away.” The SSG motioned for another 2224th HI trooper, a SGT, to get moving on the equipment transfers they could handle. “All HI from the 2223rd, 2224th, and you two are getting together tonight for a quick Hail and Farwell. Usually a whole unit would do it, but we’re a small brotherhood and we’ve got to give a few of our members a proper sendoff.”

Coop sensed there was something more there, but didn’t ask. He did have one question though.

“Staff Sergeant, how many of us are there?”

“Including the two of you; we’ll have twelve at the meeting, and once we get down range there will be sixteen of us.”

<Sixteen HI covering down on three thousand regular grunts! There is no way this ends well.> Coop kept that thought to himself. Something told him that SSG Hightower wouldn’t’ react well to such defeatism.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 110

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thor, Asgard System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

You could tell a lot about a base by their chow hall. Back at Stewart-Benning when he’d had real food for the first time, Coop thought he was living the high life. Now, he knew Training Centers’ chow halls were all about quantity not quality. Mattis was the best so far. The Fleet sustainment personnel really took care of the HI battalion. The chow hall at Tranquility on Luna fell in-between. It was rundown and dirty, but the food was decent, so at least the cook cared.

To anyone else this might not seem important, but Coop and Mike knew it meant everything. For centuries it was basic warfighting knowledge that an army marched on its stomach, and you could tell a lot about the command culture of a unit by how they fed their troops. Sustainment of a fighting force was critical for morale and a tactical necessity.

<Let’s see what the 222nd has to offer.> Coop thought as he stepped into a brigade dinning facility.

The theme was tropical in the nearly empty building. There was lots of color, exotic animals, and pictures of the beach and ocean everywhere.  It was over two hours since chow ended and another five and a half until it started again, so enlisted personnel in spotless, white uniforms were efficiently cleaning the entire space.

<Maintains cleanliness, check.> Coop went down the mental checklist he had for this type of thing.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen. We are currently resetting for dinner, but we have some sandwiches and drink options that are always available.” A zit-faced Private smiled and pointed them over toward a side section where a polyplast sneeze-guard protected tons of sandwiches.

<Kind, considerate, and willing to work with soldiers outside normal chow hours.> That was an important one in Coop’s mind. An HI trooper didn’t only eat three square meals a day.

People were starting to trickle in now that the duty day was ending, so Coop and Mike scanned their GICs and headed over to the sandwich section to join the growing line.

“Turkey, ham, salami…I’m in heaven.” Coop mumbled to himself as he looked over the selection. “Cheddar, provolone, swiss, gouda…what the hell is gouda?”

“Beats me.” Mike grabbed two ham and cheeses and stepped back so some of the other soldiers could get in.

Coop heard some grumbles as he took up some prime real estate, but he just couldn’t choose. He’d never had so many options before. The 222nd’s chow hall was rapidly approaching the one at Mattis.

<All of the above.> Coop finally settled on a turkey, ham, and salami with provolone cheese.

It was the last one, and his salivary glands were already working in overdrive as he reached for it.

“Move.” A big shoulder pushed him aside, grabbed the prize sandwich, and started moving away.

“Hey asshat!” Coop was yelling before he knew what was happening. His stomach and mouth were talking without bringing his brain in on the details.

The soldier who’d taken the prize sandwich was big – HI big. He was ten centimeters shorter, but probably had twenty-five kilos of muscle on Coop, who still looked pretty skinny for someone in his military occupation. The other guy visibly bristled at the remark and slowly turned to face Coop. As he turned, corporal chevrons became visible along with a pissed off scowl.

“What did you say, Meat?”

Now it was Coop’s turn to bristle. He wasn’t fresh meat anymore. He was done with Basic, had graduated pretty close to the top of his HI class, and already had one combat drop under his belt.

“I called you an asshat, dickcheese. You took my sandwich. That’s a pretty fuckin’ stupid thing to do.” Coop saw Mike shake his head and walk off toward the tables. Coop was in this one alone.

Being called an asshat and dickcheese were the magic words. The CPL completely turned to evaluate Coop. He didn’t look impressed. Then he put the sandwich in his CMU pocket and cracked his knuckles.

“If you want it, come and get it, Meat.”

That was all the invitation Coop needed. He reached back, grabbed a random sandwich and chucked it right into the CPL’s face. The flimsy wrappings didn’t hold up to a pitch thrown faster than a major league baseball player’s. Meat, cheese, and a variety of condiments exploded all over the CPL’s face.

Coop would have made a homoerotic joke if he’d had the time, but the CPL was already on the move. The other soldiers in the sandwich area were running for cover as the two HI closed. The CPL reacted first, throwing a one-two combo with surprising speed for someone with his bulk. Coop dodged the first, parried the second with his forearm, and unleased a jaw-cracking punch that landed.

The CPL’s head snapped to the side and he stumbled, but was able to dance backwards as Coop tried to capitalize on the small victory. The CPL shook his head once, and reacquired Coop with an unnerving smile on his face.

Then he came at Coop again.

Coop was ready for more and stepped closer to engage, but then the CPL changed tactics. He came in high and went low at the last moment. Coop didn’t have time to sprawl before CPL swept in low and put his shoulder into Coop’s stomach. Next thing Coop knew, he was being lifted off his feet and up into the air. He had no leverage, but he drove one elbow into the CPL’s head before he was twisted in the air and the ground rushed up to meet him. Coop landed hard on his back, cracking the cheap floor, knocking the wind from his lungs, and allowing the CPL to pass his guard and get a full mount.

What came next was a blur of fists and blood as the CPL pounded Coop’s face in.

Coop didn’t give up though. He blocked, bucked, and they rolled all over the floor. It was one hell of a mess. Both combatant’s blood was everywhere by the time Mike got in there and pulled them apart.

Still, Coop was the clear loser. All you had to do was look at his face. The CPL was by no means pretty, but he walked away. Coop was barely conscious.

“Happy?” Mike leaned over Coop munching on his second sandwich as Coop lost consciousness.

Bitter smelling chemicals snapped Coop out of a fever dream some unknown time later. The smell of antiseptic was cloaked by the smelling salts but eventually made its presence known.

“Owww.” Coop struggled to sit up and remember what the hell had just happened.

“Easy soldier,” a plump nurse put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back onto his back. “You had quite a fall.” Her face said she didn’t believe that Coop had “fallen” at all, but wasn’t going to question it.

“What’s going on? Where am I?” Coop looked around. There were only a few beds in the immaculately kept space.

“The brigade infirmary. Your buddies brought you in for after duty sick call. Said you fell off a second story barracks porch and landed on your face.” Her snort told him that she definitely smelled the bullshit. “We held you overnight and kept you unconscious as nanites rebuilt the bones in your face. You won’t win any beauty contests for a while, but you’ll make a one hundred percent recovery.”

“He’s never been pretty.” Mike appeared in the doorway.

“Yeah, tell me about it.” The HI trooper who had beaten Coop’s ass stood next to him.

The CPL had some freshly reknit flesh over his knuckles and a smile on his face that showed some rapidly receding bruising.

“Well,” the nurse cut through their little moment. “You’re free to go. PT starts soon so I suggest you hurry.”

<PT?> Coop blinked unknowingly before finding a clock on the wall. It was almost 01:00. He’d been out for over sixteen hours.

Coop swung his feet off the bed and gingerly touched his face. Nothing hurt. The nurse had done a good job putting humpty dumpty back together again. A few steps told Coop his balance and equilibrium were fine, but he kept his guard up as he approached the CPL.

He nearly flinched back when the older HI trooper held out his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Private First Class Cooper. I’m Corporal Anders, HI for Charlie Company 2224th Infantry Battalion. Sorry about your fall.”

Coop eyed the man for a second before grasping his hand firmly. “I can be clumsy sometimes. No worries.”

And just like that the hatchet was buried, and invitations to do some blade training were exchanged. According to Anders, the 2224th only had four HI troopers for their whole battalion. They were supposed to get Coop and Mike to bolster their numbers, but the 2222nd’s deployment took precedent.

That was about the time Coop and Mike got pings on their PADs from the SGT informing them that they had five minutes to get into formation. The rest of the rear detachment was waiting for them. Despite Coop’s recent foray into unconsciousness, they were both in formation within three minutes. That gave the plenty of time to make brief introductions before reveille.

Once the ancient bugle ceased over the PA system and everyone dropped their salutes, the SGT did an about face to address the formation.

“I’m not going to sugar coat it,” she started, immediately putting everyone on edge. “Things have gotten dicey out in York Sector. Over the next forty-eight hours we’re going to be inprocessing over a hundred and fifty new troops. These replacements are immediately going to be sent forward to the battalion. In addition, Division command has relayed down the chain that the 2223rd and 2224th are deploying as well. It’ll be twelve months minimum. Shit is going sideways in York and they need some of us grunts to step on some Blockie throats sooner rather than later.”

<Shit. Seems like we’ll be getting some real life training in with Anders.> Coop didn’t look around, but he assumed other formations up and down the beach were getting similar news.

“We’re just going to do a short run this morning. First replacements should be coming into the spaceport around 04:00, so I want everyone shit, showered, and shaved by then. The LT, myself, and PFCs Cooper and Enders will be present to corral them. I want stations ready to go when we bring the first shipment back. S1 get them in the system. S2 make sure classifications are up to date. S3 make sure S1 has the latest assignment data and we’ve got bunks for them. S4 you’re going to lead a layout inspection of everyone’s equipment and get them what they need. S5 and 6 you’re going to get all of their contact information. You’ll deal with any dependent issues, and ensure wills are current.” She scanned the small assemble of soldiers. “We need to get these people in and out professionally. Let’s show them how the Quad-Deuce does it.”

“Ghostriders!” The soldiers, except Coop and Mike, sounded off with the battalion motto.

“Good.” The SGT smiled. “Let’s get warmed up. Front leaning rest position move!”

 

***

 

Eve Berg

Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

It was official. Eve fucking hated space. Zero gravity training was just the nail in the coffin.

There was no up, down, left, right or any cardinal direction in the vast empty void of black. It was hard enough to do everything when there was a planet beneath you to act as a guide, but if you were in the middle of the abyss you were up a creek with the paddle fully lodged up your ass.

She passed, by the slimmest of margins, and promised herself to never volunteer for anything ship-related for the entirety of her military career; which made the next training that much more miserable.

The destroyer moved at a steady clip just above Styx’s atmosphere. In the belly of the mechanical beast the ranger candidates stood at the position of parade rest while SGM Queen looked them over.

“I’m not gonna bullshit you.” The old war-dog had never blown smoke up their asses. “We have a five percent casualty rate on this training iteration.” His hard eyes scanned the remaining faces of the ranger class.

They’d started with over sixty and were now under thirty. More than fifty percent washed out, gave up, or were asked to leave. Eve “Ice” Berg wasn’t going to let any of those three happen to her. The only way she was not becoming a ranger was the fourth option: death. And even then they’d award her the tab posthumously.

She did the math easily in her head. If they followed the statistical pattern at least one person in the class was going to die today.

“Fear is for the weak.” The SGM continued. “We don’t give in to fear. We aren’t HI. WE grab fear by the nut sack and squeeze.”

“Rangers lead the way!” The class roared.

They’d been allowed to say the nearly five hundred year old motto just recently, and it was just the motivational tool they needed this late in their training.

“Again.”

“Rangers lead the way!”

“AGAIN!”

“RANGERS LEAD THE WAY!”

“Sound off for equipment check!”

Ports on the back of the LACS model V3 opened up at the command and cords slithered down from the ceiling. The rear person took the cord and jacked it into the LACS in front of them. The destroyer’s neural networks did the final updates and ran a quick diagnostic on the armor’s systems. It all took about three seconds and either returned a green “GO” or a red “NO GO”.

“One, ok…!”

“Two, ok…!”

“Three, ok…!” They counted off.

It was another half millennia old tradition that served the dual purpose of verifying the comms links for the chalk – chalks being the group of ranger candidates doing the drop together.

Two fifteen-person chalks would be jumping: the twenty-nine students and the SGM himself. SGM Queen never made a trainee do something he wasn’t willing to do himself.

“ALL OK, DROPMASTER!” Eve had the honor of being the first candidate behind the SGM.

“One minute.” The sound of the destroyer’s skipper echoed in all of the helmets.

“LOAD PODS!”

There were a couple of different drop pods in the Commonwealth military’s arsenal. Some could carry half a squad and were mostly used for planetary invasions, but there were also one man stealth pods for covert atmospheric entries. For today, the ranger candidates were using standard single person pods. They were cheap and disposable.

Eve swung into her tube on the port missile battery and dropped down into the pod. It sealed herself behind her, just barely missing her helmeted head. She came to an abrupt halt at the bottom with a clang.

“FILL PODS!” The SGM’s second command came half a second before she got bombarded on all sides by dense gel.

If anyone had been claustrophobic they had gotten over it or washed out. For Eve, the armor helped. It was another layer between her and everything the universe could throw at her.

Once filled, a current went through the pods and partially solidified the gel, effectively trapping everyone inside a protective cocoon. The five-person pods had brackets that soldiers could be bolted into, but that wasn’t cost effective for the one-person rapid atmospheric entry vehicles.

“CHAMBER PODS!”

There was the grinding of gears as the pods were loaded into the missile tubes, followed by complete and absolute silence. Somewhere on the bridge of the warship a silicone and human brain were teaming up to find the best shot for the ranger candidates. The equations were complex, and one misplaced decimal point could have them going SPLAT or burning up on reentry.

<Don’t think about it.> She chided herself for the stupid mistake. She took some deep breaths and focused on what happened when they hit the ground.

The SGM hadn’t told them what was going to happen that morning in the barracks. He just told them to pack a standard load and get to the transport.

“God speed.” The skipper’s voice interrupted the silence of their pod/tomb. The next minute would tell which description was the most accurate.

“FIRE!”

Eve blacked out from the velocity. That was the drawback of these pods. The gel helped with the G-force, but nothing beat the anti-grav plates built into the better and bigger versions.

She came to about the time she hit the first big jerk on reentry. Even the gel wasn’t enough to keep her from getting bounced around a bit.

“Sound off!” It was the first time she’d heard strain in the SGM’s voice.

“Pod zero-one!” Eve did as she was ordered along with pinging STRATNET as a redundancy.

Everyone was doing the same and following her example with STRATNET – except one.

“Damnit!” Now the SGM sounded pissed.

Eve knew there was nothing she could do. They’d been told in training there was nothing they could do. In the simulations all of this had been simulated, not to this extend, but they’d done their best to mimic the hopelessness of this situation. Eve still found herself pinging the unresponsive pod on TACCOM right up until the end.

“BRACE BRACE BRACE!” Eve bent her knees as much as possible with the restrictive gel. Even then she felt like her ankle nearly exploded from the force of the impact.

She verified the drag chute had deployed, and it had. <Fat lot of good that did.> She winced as the gel became liquid and spilled out of the pod when it opened.

Eve immediately took a knee, using her pod as cover, and scanned the area with every sensor she had and the old reliable mark-one eyeball.

She tried to ignore the sensors showing the medical stats of the first chalk: twelve green, two yellow, and one black. The tag above it read SGT DIGGLE.

Eve felt like she’d been shot. Her friend and mentor was gone just like that. <All because of a fucking pod malfunction or some fleet puke couldn’t punch in the right digits!> Murder flooded her mind, but her physical senses kept scanning the area for threats.

A rally point blazed on her STRATNET screen and she automatically started moving toward it. A few hundred meters and five minutes later the first chalk was gathered in a circle with Eve and the SGM in the center.

“Private First Class Berg, you are the patrol leader. Your mission is as follows…”

Eve’s emotions took a back seat to the mission. Everything had to take a back seat to the mission.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 109

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thor, Asgard System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

<Oh my God.> Coop didn’t believe in God, but if he did this would be the Big Guy’s home.

Mike and Coop had been given tickets on a civilian liner to the Asgard System where they were both assigned to the 2222nd Infantry Battalion, aka the Quad-Deuce. Asgard was just a layover though. The two HI troopers would be assigned to a holding company for a few days until the next flight went out to New Lancashire.

Coop could barely hold back his excitement at getting out of the Sol System. Mike was a little down in the dumps about the whole deal because leaving Sol meant leaving Harper. But that was the military life. It was hard to get attached to someone when you got moved all over the galaxy.

“Are you seeing this?” Coop had his face plastered to the armorplast window as the five hundred passenger liner came out of the Alcubierre launcher.

There was the equivalent of an interstellar traffic jam leading up to and going out of the giant slingshot. And that was just this one. The system had four in total, one for strictly military use. Cargo haulers, freighters, and even private luxury yachts were backed up in one kilometer intervals as far as Coop could see. Their blinking positioning lights made it look like a conga line in space. The same was true for those coming out of the launcher. The line started a safe distance away so there weren’t any collisions, but there was a second line stretching forever, and Coop was in the back of that line.

“Attention, this is your captain speaking.” A voice announced over the speaker. “There seems to be a slight delay with System Control so we’re going to be here for awhile.”

To Coop’s surprise nobody groaned but him. It seemed delays in Asgard were common.

A while ending up being two hours, but Coop didn’t waste any time. While he sat fidgeting in his economy class chair he pulled out his PAD and did a little research. His PAD found access to the system’s MILNET node easily enough, so he was able to dig up more than the average civilian.

The Asgard system itself was the military and military-industrial complex capitol of the United Commonwealth of Colonies in addition to being the sector capitol. The system was only forty light years from Earth, and a longtime Core system. There were seven terraformed and inhabited planets in the system, each posting a population in the billions, some in the double digits. The system capitol planet was Asgard: the fourth planet from the yellow dwarf, home to the Admiralty Complex, and the second and fifth infantry corps. That was just the planet’s garrison. The system had six more corps assigned to it that were deployable and scattered throughout the Commonwealth; as well as the Eighth, Ninth, and Twelfth Fleets.

Asgard was a world pretty similar to Earth. Gravity was 1.03% Earth normal and a few degrees colder on average. It had the same land to water ratio and didn’t suffer from any of the same environmental and ecological hardships as the home world.

Coop and Mike only got to fly by the second most important planet in the Commonwealth, far more important than little, old, overcrowded Earth. But even from a hundred thousand kilometers away Coop could still see the slight shimmer in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

“Holy shit is that a planetary defense shield!” Coop had thought it was a myth before he saw it himself.

“Yeah.” A tired-looking civilian answered from the seat beside them. “It wraps around the whole planet. It’s the only other world beside New Washington to have one. They say it’ll withstand a Blockie siege indefinitely, but no one knows until it gets put to the test. All I know is that it plays havoc with commerce, and traffic at the shield gates is always a pain in the ass,” he grumbled.

Coop didn’t give a shit about that. A whole planet was wrapped in a shield. <How is that not the coolest fuckin’ thing ever.> He kept his face plastered to the window as the shimmering blue, green, and white ball slid farther and farther away.

Now that they were out into the system’s shipping lanes they were moving at a good pace toward their destination. Coop didn’t bother to research the other five planets in the system. He knew they’d have hundreds of thousands of troops on them, have industry that supported the massive Commonwealth war machine, and of course there were the shipyards around the ice-world, Frigg, that produced the Commonwealth’s latest and greatest designs.

Instead, he focused his attention on the third world from the star. The tropical planet Thor: headquarters of the Second Infantry Corps, and their temporary duty station. Unlike Asgard, which resembled Earth in a lot of ways, Thor was what Earth looked like after the proverbial flood. Eighty-five percent of the planet’s surface was covered in oceans. The remaining fifteen percent was pockmarked with island continents. With the planet only being eighty percent the size of Earth, and at 1.25% its gravity, the largest island was only half the size of Australia, and the comments section on MILNET said you didn’t want to be stationed there. It was hot year-round and 25% more difficult to do anything up to and including walking. It was less of a problem for HI, but it would suck for the regular grunts.

On the bright side, it did lead to the Second Corps nickname: The Hellhounds. And word on the street was that Hellhound Six was a real ballbuster.

The passenger liner descended through the atmosphere to the spaceport. There was no planetary defense shield to protect Thor, but there was half a fleet in orbit to deter an enemy stupid enough to be in the system in the first place. Coop didn’t even feel a bump as the medium-sized ship fought the atmosphere on its way down. It was a civilian ship after all. They took into consideration creature comforts.

Coop and Mike grabbed their bags and disembarked with the rest of the passengers. They’d barely set foot on the polyplast floors when their PADs pinged with a rally point. It directed them to the recruitment office in the spaceport’s baggage claim area. Thor had a basic training center for any unlucky son of a bitch that lived here and wanted to join up.

Standing there at the podium, looking unhappy with the assignment, was a sergeant in CMUs. The skinny little people heading into the recruitment office gave her a wide berth, but Coop and Mike could tell she was their ride. If she hadn’t been, she would have been giving recruits the stink eye, not Coop and Mike.

“You my new guys?” She raised an eyebrow as Mike and Coop walked up.

“Yes, Sergeant. Private First Class Cooper and…”

“I don’t need your autobiography, Private. Get in the air-car and let’s go.”

Mike and Coop exchanged a look before following in the SGT’s wake. <And we’ve got another one with a stick up her ass.>

The waiting vehicle was a troop transport hovering a few feet off the ground. It was already half full of the new recruits, but that wasn’t what caught Coop’s attention. The minute they stepped out of the sliding polyplast door they were hit with enough humidity that he felt like he was breathing soup. It was easily thirty plus degrees Celsius outside, and Coop’s PAD informed him that it was late fall on the planet. It was worse than Stewart-Benning.

<Just a few days and I’m out of this swamp ass factory.> He told himself as he pulled himself up into the open-bay transport.

The recruits averted their eyes as they took their seats. Coop watched them as they examined their shoes or the paneling of the vehicle’s floor. One chanced a look at the two HI troopers. She was a pretty, young thing. Young in the sense that she had that naïve look Coop associated with someone with delusions about what the military actually was. Age-wise she was probably older than him. Her skin was a deep tan that was the norm on the planet. But she still glistened with sweat. Something told him people never stopped sweating on this planet.

They made eye contact briefly, and Coop gave her his best wink. Her face immediately soured and she returned to looking at anything but him.

<Ehh…your loss.> Coop sat back, crossed his arm, and shut his eyes.

It was impossible to sleep as the sun blazed down onto his face through the truck’s open top, but it was pleasant for the first few minutes. Having spent the last day in space it was good to be back on the ground.

The kids got dropped off first. A screaming drill sergeant yelled them off the truck and into a building where they would begin Day Zero. The HI troopers rode for another few minutes before stopping next to a squat building. Coop hopped down from the back and looked to the building on his right. Then he swiveled his head to the left and saw the beach.

<Beach?> White sand and clear blue water was less than a hundred feet from the front door of the Battalion HQ.

“Listen up.” The Sergeant hopped down beside Coop. “PT is at 01:00, duty day starts at 04:00 and goes to 16:00. We’ve got long days here, thirty-two hours. It’s hottest from 17:00 to 22:00 so we try to avoid being out around then. Chow is 03:00 to 04:00, 12:00 to 13:00, and 21:00 to 22:00. We’re going to get you signed in with the staff duty NCO, get you inprocessed to the battalion and then find you a temporary bunk.” She did a precise about face and walked into the building with Coop and Mike following quickly behind.

The air conditioning inside the HQ building for the Quad-Deuce was heavenly, and for a second it made Coop miss just how empty the building was. There was a CPL manning the desk who signed Coop and Mike in, but there wasn’t anyone running around the hallways, or even moving in and out of the building except them.

“Where is everyone?” He couldn’t stop from asking.

“We’re the battalion’s rear detachment.”

It seemed Coop had located the source of the SGT’s sourness.

“They left behind a squad and officer to ensure we could move new personnel forward, maintain communication with the families, and handle any administrative work that needs doing back here.”

<Wow that sucks.> Coop kept that thought to himself. <Your unit is off on the fringes of the galaxy and you’re stuck back here. Tough break.>

The SGT didn’t speak any more about it. They found a clerk in the S1 office who inprocessed them and assigned them two bunks in the barracks. The PVT told them not to get comfortable. Two new HI troopers were going to be called forward quick.

“It’s 15:30 already so you two are released,” the SGT informed after they finished all of the necessary paperwork. “PT is on the beach in front of HQ. Don’t be late or I’ll feed your ass through the grinder, understood?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Good, dismissed.”

Just like that Coop and Mike had fifteen hours of free time on their hands. So they did the first thing any soldier would do when assigned to a new base. They went to check out the chow hall.

 

***

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: Alcubierre Bubble, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Ben entered his private cabin and tossed his PAD onto the bed. “Geoffrey, hold all my calls unless we’re under attack.”

“Yes, Commander Gold.” The Semi-Intelligent AI replied without any emotion. If that was in its programming, it hadn’t gotten there yet.

CWS Argo had been in Alcubierre transit for the last five hours and Ben had spent every one of them, and every waking hour of the last day, double and triple checking his crew’s readiness for their first mission. The short battle hadn’t counted since they were high-tailing it out of the system before the first missiles were fired.

They’d done some training when coming out in Fortitude’s belly, but Argo’s crew was still green, which meant they had to establish their own SOP’s and learn how everyone worked together. They hadn’t had enough time to do it, and it was Ben’s fault.

He’d been so busy getting close to the Star Kingdom’s diplomatic delegation that he’d neglected his crew’s training schedule. On top of that, he’d volunteered his crew for duties related to the delegation instead of shipboard duties. The NCOIC hadn’t been happy about that and he didn’t mind telling the skipper how he felt.

“How’s Chief Yates taking all of this?”

“I believe he is happy about it, Sir. His exact words were: ‘I am glad to be out of my monkey suit.’” Geoffrey wasn’t programmed for subtlety, or he hadn’t picked it up yet.

Ben winced slightly at the comment. Their last function had been a dinner party, and the crew of Argo had supplemented the assault carrier’s servers.

“Is that the sentiment from everyone?”

“There is not enough data to support any conclusion, Commander Gold. But the crew’s vitals over the last twenty-four hours do indicate an uptick in enthusiasm. They are more active, especially the marine detachment.”

“That’s because Sergeant O’Neil has been running them through boarding and counter-boarding ops for the last few hours.”

The marines had taken to the change with gusto, and if anyone was going to be ready by the time they got to Cobalt Station it was them.”

“Geoffrey, diagnostic.” Ben cut the idle chitchat and got back to work.

A rundown of data started populating Ben’s PAD. He ignored most of it, zeroing in on the important parts.

Argo was locked and loaded. She had missiles in all four of her sealed tubes, and eight more broadsides worth in her weapons hold. A hundred thousand railgun rounds were also aboard. It might seem like a lot, but that number could shrink fast, especially when being used as a last-ditch countermeasure to incoming fire. The generators for the port and starboard 50 terawatt and 100 terawatt nose energy cannons were also operating at one hundred percent. Argo was ready for anything the station could throw at them. Not that Ben expected this to get violent. This was a routine check, and since the corporation paid the Commonwealth for the port calls there was no reason they’d start shooting.

The ship was ready, but Ben still had some reservations about the crew. Chief Yates and Lieutenant Briggs were top of the line. Just like he’d suspected, the marines took an instant liking to the peppy XO. Engineering was a little bit more questionable. There had been a few times during the workup where SP3 McKinnie wasn’t anywhere to be found and Spacer Lee seemed to be handling the workload, but there hadn’t been any time to look into it.

Lee herself was a bit of a problem though. It was nothing concerning her work. She did everything above standard, but she was a bit of a flirt, and it was causing problems with the maintenance deckhands. She seemed to have them pitted against each other to win her affection.

SP2 Olvera was still her quiet and detached self, which Ben didn’t think was a good quality in the NCOIC of the Communications Department. It didn’t matter that it was only a one-person department.

The helmsman, SA Gilbert, was solid, but a little cocky. Corporal Diez in navigation still didn’t seem comfortable with his job coming over from the infantry, but Ben didn’t foresee that being a problem. They wouldn’t be doing any complicated jumps as far as he could tell.

The marines had the hard job and they were ready to go. They were one man short, but he was confident they’d get the job done. Overall, Argo was ready for combat operations. Ben just hoped he didn’t have to fight any battles all the way out in the middle of nowhere.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 107

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: JB Armstrong/Tranquility, Luna, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 A promise was a promise, and a promise before combat was one Coop wasn’t willing to break. After their quick, barebones graduation, he and Mike hopped the next shuttle to Luna. The normally stoic Mike, always a man of few words, was practically giddy at the prospect of seeing Harper again. The two Basic fuckbuddies had been trying a long distance relationship since Basic graduation, and so far things seemed to be working.

If Coop was being honest with himself he was a little jealous they were making it work. He hadn’t received anything from Eve since they said goodbye.  But that was old Coop’s insecurities. New Coop was excited to see a new city and to sample its local delicacies.

Tranquility and the adjacent Joint Base Armstrong were anything but new. JB Armstrong was built on the foundation of the initial lunar landing site at Mare Tranquilitatis – The Sea of Tranquility – and had been built up and militarized since the 2030s. The resulting base was a hodgepodge of buildings on the edge of the city with no thought being spared to urban planning. But that was understandable. At first the architects were only worried about staying alive.

Tranquility started as an accompanying research station a few decades later, and both had grown by leaps and bounds over the last several centuries. Now, about ten million people called Tranquility home, and a brigade kept a close watch over this portion of Commonwealth territory. Luna had ten major cities spread across the surface, each guarded by a Brigade, with a division-level command being in charge of the entire planetary defense. But that was just the army units on the surface. The orbitals were a whole difference story.

“Now that’s something you don’t see every day.” Coop had whistled when their shuttle crossed the defensive rings that encircled Earth’s only moon.

Luna was a centuries-old Commonwealth territory and one of the first investments of the new starfaring nation after its creation. It fought a war to win it, and it was going to keep it. The two rings covered in railguns, point defense lasers, energy cannons, and missiles tubes were capable of holding off a sizable enemy fleet, which made it a military stronghold in the system. It was also a great training site for military personnel. The unique environment allowed all different sorts of specialty schools to be located there.

Originally, the idea of terraforming Luna had been passed around, but a quick cost-benefit analysis showed it wasn’t viable. Terraforming a planet that already had a workable atmosphere was doable, but Luna wasn’t more than a big rock in space; so they did the next best thing. Giant generators were buried into the ground to project shields around the habitable zones, and all the cities were placed in the lower altitude “seas” across the moon’s surface. Walls were built up on natural or man-made ridges so the shields didn’t interfere with the faultlines of the moon, and thus modern life on Luna was born.

As a result, the military had enclosed, environmentally stable inhabited zones where normal schools, like Harper’s Nursing School could be located. But it also gave them the barren Zero-G wastelands where infantry specialty schools could conduct their training. Coop knew he might find himself back on Luna at some point for additional training, so he was determined to map out the local scene while there.

<Weird.> He remembered thinking when the shuttle descended and had to pass through the Tranquility’s shield.

It went from barren gray nothingness to a temperate paradise once you passed over the tall, thick wall around the perimeter and through the double-layer of shielding. He saw squads of infantry doing maneuvers in full armor on one side, and literally a hundred feet away a pickup game of basketball was going on with guys in t-shirts and shorts. For someone who’d grown up on Earth and been a part-time visitor on Mars, seeing that was a little nerve-racking. So when Mike went off to suck face – and do other things – with Harper, Coop went to the enlisted soldier’s gym in the protective comfort of a building.

Nobody higher than a corporal was there, so as an HI PFC he basically had the run of the place. There were no other heavies present, and a few people congregated around him as he did his workout; sometimes putting up multiple tons on the magnetic resistance. Thankfully, a few of his admirers were of the female persuasion.

“You’re a big one aren’t ya?” A voice asked from behind him as he racked the weights.

“That’s what I’ve been told…oh!” He visibly recoiled as he got a look at the person talking to him.

Unlike the attractive brunette that had been discretely watching him out of the corner of her eye, and who he thought looked ready to come over and talk to him, Coop found himself facing somebody who looked like their face had gotten into a fight with some nanites and lost horribly.

She, at least he thought she was a she, had a crooked nose from one too many bar fights. Her eyes were spaced a little bit close together, and one side of her face looked like it had been hit by a stun baton; that, or she’d recently had a stroke. Either way, it gave her a lopsided expression where only half her mouth worked, which made understanding her already thick accent that much more difficult.

Her PT uniform showed she was a corporal, so Coop tried to recover. “What can I do for you, Corporal?”

“Nothing, Cooper. I just wanted to see if you wanted to make a little extra cash?”

Her knowing his name wasn’t a surprise since it was on his shoulder right below his single chevron and rocker.

“Depends?” He answered noncommittally.

“A few of my contacts back at Mattis told me you like to make a quick buck and have certain tastes.” She smiled, which creeped Coop out more than anything.

But what she said put him off. “Look, I’m flattered…but…I’m not a gigolo…” He started, only to get a hearty laugh from the CPL.

“Boy, you couldn’t handle me.” She wiped a tear from her good eye. “But thanks, I needed a good laugh.”

Now Coop was really confused. He had a taste for women and fine booze, but that was about it.

“I’m talking about your tendency to talk with your fists, Cooper.”

<Ohhh. Wait…How…?>

She saw the question in his eyes and smiled that lopsided smile again.

“I looked you up, Cooper. You’ve got an official reprimand for excessive use of force against a civilian. My little birdie also told me that you instigated a fight and took down a good chunk of a company of grunts over spilled beer and a mouthy LT. So, am I talking to that Mark Cooper or are you some little bitch and I’ve got the wrong person?”

Coop glared at her and got to his feet. He was a solid half a meter taller than her, could probably break her over his knee with little effort, and it didn’t matter that she had two more rough-looking guys behind her.

“Looks like I got the right guy.” She nodded.

Coop didn’t even realize his fists were balled up and shaking.

“Meet me at this address at 20:00. If you come I’ll cut you in for thirty percent. If you don’t, then it’s your loss.” She got up and left.

Just like that Coop wasn’t interesting in working out anymore. He was interested in what the butt-ugly corporal was talking about, what the total would be that his thirty percent would be coming off of, and what he had to do to get it.

<Fortune favors the bold even if curiosity killed the cat.> He made up his mind before he left the gym.

At 20:00 he arrived at a storage warehouse at the ass end of the joint base. He knocked twice on the old-fashioned steel door and a second later it rolled up. CPL Ugly was there waiting for him with the creepy lopsided smile.

“Glad you could join us, Cooper.” She turned to the rest of her small group. “The muscle is here.”

The two other guys, the same ones from the gym, didn’t look happy to see him, but they didn’t argue with the boss. Coop walked into the small space, angling himself to keep everyone in his line of sight as the door fell back down into place.

“What are we doing?” Coop’s gut was telling him to be cautious, and he always trusted his gut in situations like this.

“The job is simple.” The CPL got right down to it. “We’re in the repo business, and there’s a local tough guy who’s delinquent on his payments.”

<That’s pretty vague.> Coop wondered if they were legit, or if they were hired muscle for some local loan shark. After a moment of thought, he concluded it was the latter.

“What do I have to do?” Coop hadn’t heard anything too incriminating. He could still walk if he didn’t like what they were selling. Or, he could fight his way out. But judging by the CPL he was sure he’d take some hits in the process.

“All you have to do is stand there and look big.” The CPL smiled at him. “I’ll do all the talking. Just follow my lead.”

<And be prepared to break skulls if it comes to that.> Coop knew how this all worked. He’d been on the giving and receiving end of these types of visits back in the PHA. They rarely ever ended with kind words.

“How much does it pay?” That was the ultimate deciding factor.

“The target owes twenty-K. We charge our employer ten percent, and you get thirty percent of the profits.”

<Six hundred.> Coop did the mental math.

“Ok, I’m in. Now where’s my gun?”

“Gun?” The CPL feigned shock, but he saw right through it.

“Yeah, gun. Only an idiot would go into this without some firepower.”

The CPL saw she wasn’t going to pull one over on him and pulled a PDW from behind her back.

The personal defense weapon was the weapon authorized for civilian ownership and use. They weren’t supposed to be lethal, but they’d put a person down until the cops arrived; which meant the rounds had a low velocity, and were made of polyplast instead of metal.

<They still hurt like a bitch.> Coop had been hit by one before and didn’t want to think about it. <But that was before I was HI.> As long as the target didn’t have anything more lethal he’d be fine.

“We copacetic?” The CPL raised the eyebrow on the normal side of her face.

“We’re good. Let’s get this done.” He accepted the PDW. If this little side business had a contract, handing over the firearm was the equivalent of signing on the dotted line. They were in it together now.

<Six hundred bucks and I’ll be out of here before the cops or MPs start looking into it closely.>

No one was going to give two shits about a local thug getting smacked around, and that was presuming the guy went to the cops to begin with. Even if the authorities got involved it would take them time to refine their list of suspects. Even if they did suspect Coop, he’d be halfway across the known galaxy before they linked him to anything, and he didn’t intend to get wrapped up in an investigation in the first place. He was smarter than that.

All of that ran through his head as he pulled on a pair of glove and did a quick inspection of the PDW. He ejected the magazine, pulled the bolt back a few times to see if it was well maintained. It was, so he slid the magazine back in, chambered a round, but made sure it was still on safe before sticking it into the pocket of his coat.

An old-fashioned ground car took the four of them from the warehouse to an older, more decrepit section of Tranquility. Scantily clad woman walked the street, rundown businesses lined the main drag, and people who didn’t belong rolled through quickly with their doors locked and their windows up.

It felt like home to Coop.

They parked the car in an alley connected to one of the less decrepit businesses and entered through an open side door. There was a short hallway packed with what looked like costumes before they walked out of an employees only door and into the main section. It was a titty bar in the middle of mudwrestling night.

<The classics never die.> Coop stutter-stepped as he watched two topless women exchange punches in the filthy pit.

Guys with handfuls of money were yelling and betting with their PADs while a giant holo-board kept track of the odds second by second.

“Let’s go.” One of the CPL’s other goons elbowed Coop.

They shouldered aside the patrons and headed straight for another door. Two big guys, but not as big as Coop, blocked the way. Coop didn’t see what happened, but it happened quickly. By the time he caught back up to the CPL both guards were out cold and seated in chairs next to the door. A cursory glance and someone would conclude they were just sleeping on the job.

The CPL didn’t stop, she threw open the door and walked in like she owned the place.

“For fuck’s sake!” The sleezeball behind a desk piled high with cash grabbed for something out of sight.

“Tisk Tisk, Marco.” The CPL had her PDW out and pointed at the man’s head. “Raise your hands slowly or I’ll put one in your eye. Regrowing an eye costs at least twenty grand without coverage. Do you want to lose double tonight?”

“Bitch,” Marco spat back, but raised his hands slowly.

Whatever the case the CPL had a reputation.

“You borrowed ten grand from Gus. That, plus the vig and delinquent payments equals twenty.  We’re here to collect.” The statement was superfluous. Her two goons were already at Marco’s table counting out the money.

The titty bar owner made it easy on them. Everything had already been neatly divided into thousand dollar stacks. They were halfway through throwing the cash into a bag when the door opened and the two guards rushed in.

Whatever the CPL used to take them down they didn’t stay down.

Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing. They flowed through to door and split to either side. Each had their own sector to deal with and their PDWs were held with confidence. They might even be off duty cops or soldiers.

But even with all that they weren’t ready for Coop. He was standing to the right of the doorway. He turned when he heard the door crash open, pivoted, and lashed out with a front kick. The guy moving in Coop’s direction took the kick in the side. There was a momentary look of surprise, replaced by a grimace of pain, as the kick lifted him off the ground and threw him into his partner who was moving in the opposite direction.

The second guy’s PDW went off with a suppressed pop when his partner bowled over him and they both went crashing to the floor. The round missed the owner by about a meter, but you would have thought a bomb went off by the way the man dove away.

<Definitely somebody off duty.> Coop concluded after noticing the updated PDW. They weren’t usually suppressed like that.

He kept up the pressure and rushed the guys as they were still trying to untangle from each other. He was on top of them raining down controlled blows before they could point their PDWs at the new danger.

It took a couple punches, but he knocked both of the guards out cold. Meantime, the CPL hadn’t even moved. “Let’s go, Marco. I don’t have all day.”

The guy got to his feet with a glare. He had looked smug when his guys came rushing to the rescue, but that look had quickly soured.

The CPL’s guys finished gathering up the cash and headed back out the door. The CPL started to back out too, but Coop walked right up to Marco’s desk. He looked at the titty bar owner and then at the still-large pile of cash. He grabbed a fifty off the top of one stack.

“For my inconvenience.” He smiled sweetly before following the CPL out of the room, through the bar area, and back out the side door into the car.

The guy behind the wheel peeled out of the alley. All the evidence remaining of the collection activities was the smell of burnt rubber. Coop’s only regret about it all was that he might have liked to return to the establishment at some point. That was a no go now.

“Here.” The CPL pulled in front of the shitty motel that Coop and Mike were renting a room at.

She handed him six hundred, which he confirmed with a quick count. In exchange he handed back the PDW which he didn’t need after all. He dropped the magazine out the bottom and ejected the round from the chamber before giving it to her. Giving someone you’d just met, who you didn’t totally trust, a loaded weapon was just bad business.

“Don’t spend it all in one place, and don’t deposit it all at once. The bank on post will take any deposit amount, but anything over five hundred triggers an automatic subroutine. Don’t be a smart ass and do four-ninety-nine either. They’ll flag that too. If you’re going to save it, do four-fifty today and the rest tomorrow. That shouldn’t raise MWFAS’ eyebrows.”

“Thanks for the heads up.” Coop didn’t know any of that.

“Thanks for having our backs.” The CPL gestured toward the door. “If you’re ever back in town and want some more entrepreneurial opportunities look me up.” She sent him an encrypted e-mail with her contact information.

“Will do, Corporal.” He closed the door and she left.

He walked back to his room where the “Do Not Disturb” sign was on the door and he heard the distinct sounds of Mike and Harper fucking. That sent him to the hotel bar where he quickly blew a quarter of his cash on getting shit faced.

At some point during his seventh beer his PAD pinged with his orders. He was to report to Bravo Company 2222nd Infantry Battalion stationed in New Lancashire.

Coop was heading to the Quad-Deuce and the Rim.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 105

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Joint Base Mattis, Mars, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop knew it was coming. It was a matter of “when” not “if”. Their last week couldn’t consist solely of hand-to-hand combat focusing on the blades in their LACS forearms. That would be too easy. So when MSG Smith released them at 1600 on Thursday with a stern warning to ensure their LACS were fully operational, Coop knew something was up. It was the same thing as when you were told there was no morning PT and a 0800 formation. That was code for a surprise urinalysis. Sometimes the military telegraphed their moves like an eight-year-old learning to box.

Coop went over his armor with a fine-tooth comb, and demanded his team do the same. Everyone else in the company got the hint, so when 0001 Friday morning rolled around and they were all woken up by a blaring alarm they were ready.

“Get to the motorpool…double-time…in your PT uniforms. You have two minutes. MOVE!” The MSG roared with a level face.

Despite the volume and hustle in the MSG’s voice it just didn’t compare to what Alpha Company had gone through a little over a week ago. There was a big difference between getting yelled at by the MSG and hearing the roar of Spyders on strafing runs, the chorus of old chemically-powered rifles trying to punch holes in your armor, and the thundering booms of a building collapsing. Next to that, training was just…well training.

“Fall in…front leaning rest position move…the pushup! Ready! Begin! One…two…three…ONE!” They did five minutes of pushups straight as a warmup, followed by the same amount of sit-ups and air squats to get the blood flowing through their bodies.

A regular human might have doubled over and puked from that type of exertion, but Coop and company weren’t even breathing hard.

“Listen up!” The MSG barked as they recovered. “This is it for the sixteen of you. You’ve passed your qualifications, seen something approaching the real deal, and for the most part you handled your shit. Soon you will graduate HI school and advance to the rank of private first class if you aren’t one already. You will be given a two day pass to do whatever you want, and then your ass will be the property of the Commonwealth Infantry.”

Coop couldn’t stop the grin from pulling at the corners of his lips.

“But that is in the future.” The MSG smiled and Coop’s grin vanished. “Before you are entrusted to go off into the wild black yonder you need to impress me. I do not give a shit if you passed those qualifications. A retarded monkey could pass those. I do not care if you fired non-lethal rounds in anger at a bunch of Rats throwing glass bottles at you. And I certainly don’t give a flying fuck if you think you’re ready.”

Coop could have sworn the big NCO looked right at him when he said that.

“This final test is meant for you to prove to me that you’re ready to be HI.” The MSG paced in front of their small formation. “I hold the keys to your future. If you do not impress me you do not pass. It is that simple. LCDR Tully will back up my evaluation of you, so every qualification on Mars won’t mean jackshit. Impress me or the last eight weeks means nothing.” The MSG let that sink in.

“Are you ready?”

“YES, MASTER SERGEANT!” If there was any time to be motivated it was now.

“We’ll see.” The NCO ignored the motivation. “Your first task is a fifty kilometer run. Your route has been downloaded to your PAD. You have two hours to complete the run. Starting…NOW!”

They took off like sixteen bats out of hell, and Coop hoped no one got in their way because they’d get stomped on. Coop was going to do anything to get through this last test, even if that meant kicking a regular grunt to the curb.

Thankfully, that wasn’t a problem when you were running between 0030 and 0230 in the morning. The pace and distance itself wasn’t even that bad with their enhanced muscles and conditioning. Everyone made it under the time-hack. The real issue was their metabolism. All the calories needed to run that far that fast left a gaping hole in Coop’s stomach. By the time they finished the run, chow was eight hours behind them, and he could feel his body literally eating itself alive.

The MSG was waiting for them at the finish line with a not-impressed look on his face.  He handed them each a liter of water and a two-thousand calorie nutrition bar. Both barely put a dent in what their body craved, but that was all they were going to get.

“Behind me are your LACS. Each of them has suffered some type of failure despite being told to be in working condition. You have one hour to discover and fix the malfunction. EXECUTE!”

<You have got to be shitting me.> The armor wouldn’t even open up to let Coop in, which meant there was a total system’s failure.

He had to use an old-school hand crank to get the armor open so he could find out what was wrong and that ate up valuable time. When he did open it enough to squeeze in he had almost no power remaining, and the MASTER WARNING icon dominated his screen.

<Fucking asshole son-of-a-bitch goat fucking dick!> Coop let out a stream of curses as he slipped back out of the armor.

The MASTER WARNING icon meant that the LACS had shit a brick and he needed to go through a full reboot one system at a time. Normally, the process took one hour. Coop had to do it in fifty-three minutes.

He completed it in fifty-two minutes and forty-five seconds.

<YES! Suck on my balls motherfucker!> Coop celebrated as the LACS HUD illuminated and initiated the start-up procedure.

The fifty kilometer run was a physical workout, but this LACS test was a mental one. It required the full, intimate knowledge of everything they’d learned several weeks ago. It was a thorough test, but as a student, Coop only thought about how much of a pain in the ass it was.

Two of the sixteen didn’t meet the standard. They were asked to leave and were recycled to the next class. The plus side of that was getting another week of training with blades. The downside was that one more failure and they were going to get their enhancements stripped from their bones and tossed back into the regular infantry. That was not something you wanted to do after you experienced the strength-multiplier HI was on the battlefield.

Their successful completion got them two two-thousand calorie bars, armor with a full hydration bladder, and ten minutes of downtime. The ten minutes seemed to last for two before coordinates started populating on the HUDs along with countdown clocks. Coop recognized those coordinates. It was the live-fire range they’d done their Joint Platform Artillery Coordinator (JPAC) certification on.

<Knowledge of our armor…check. Call for fire…check. Wanna bet our last test is going to be a hand-to-hand exercise.> It made sense, but Coop didn’t have time to think about it. He was still hungry, tired, and had twelve straight hours of fire missions ahead of him.

Everyone passed the call for fire test. Some were battered and bruised, their armor scratched and dented from close calls, but they all pulled through. Anything less than perfection during this trial was unacceptable. This was the core of HI, and the MSG made sure they knew that.

It was 1500 by the time they finished their test. Everyone else on JB Mattis had nearly gone through an entire duty day while they were out on the range blowing shit up. But Coop knew they weren’t done yet. The day didn’t end until 1700, and even that was flexible.

“Fall in!”

They’d run all the way back from the range, another couple dozen kilometers. Some fared better than others. It depended on how much you used your suit, so Coop was pretty tired by the time he jogged into the motorpool, but he was at sixty-four percent on his battery.

<Fucking morons.> He saw some people were down to less than forty percent power. <We’re about to try to gut each other with enhanced maneuvers and you burned power running.>

Coop took some long sips from his hydration bladder and punched in a series of commands. He’d saved one of the calorie bars and started chomping on it while he stood in formation. If anyone was closely monitoring him they would have torn him a new asshole, but he didn’t really care about that right now. He needed every last bit of energy he could get. A couple minutes in close combat would be worse than the entire fifty kilometer run they’d started out with.

The MSG didn’t waste any time. The armorers appeared with the training blades on grav-sleds. You could still pummel someone to death with them, but you couldn’t run someone through. Although, the sensors on the blade would let the LACS neural network know if someone delivered a killing blow.

The fourteen remaining HI troopers stood at the position of attention as the armorers methodically went through their ranks and replaced the blades. Coop savored every minute, because he knew it wouldn’t last.

“Alpha Team, step up!” The MSG was in his armor now, and he directed them to four separate marked off areas through their HUDs.

Coop went straight to his assigned cube, and watched as three other instructors emerged from the staff building. All were in LACS, and all had training blades protruding from their forearms.

“Survive for more than three minutes against an instructor and you pass.” That was the only instruction the MSG gave as the cadre picked a student and lined up opposite them.

<You’ve got to be shitting me.> Coop silently wondered why the universe hated him when SGM Crum stepped up to face him.

The SGM didn’t say anything. He just stood there like the grim reaper waiting to tear out Coop’s soul.

“Begin!”

The SGM moved.

Coop barely got a blade into a blocking position before the SGM hit him like an angry Norse god with an affinity for hammers. It was like Coop’s blade wasn’t even there. The SGM smashed him aside, and it was only thanks to a quick turn that a death blow turned into a glancing one. That didn’t help when the SGM smashed an elbow into Coop’s armored head and knocked him to the ground.

Coop rolled instinctually. He barely missed getting impaled by the SGM’s downward thrust, but still received a slice across his back as the SGM followed up the thrust with a lash from the opposite blade. Sensors told Coop nothing had gotten through, but he’d be vulnerable to weapon’s fire in those damaged places if this was the real deal. Thankfully, this was blades only, and the SGM let Coop get back to his feet.

Coop took advantage for that and charged. <The best defense is to shove your blades up their ass.> Coop’s blades arched in a figure-eight in front of him as he tried to confuse and surprise the SGM.

It didn’t work. He got in two offensive attacks, before a kick lashed out and knocked Coop off his feet. He fell on his ass with an oomph, and barely got his blades into a blocking position above him. The SGM crashed into him like a force of nature with enough brute strength that Coop got tagged by his own blades before he could divert enough power to counter the stronger and more skilled NCO’s attack.

The SGM added to his advantage by putting the tonnage of his LACS into the attack. It was the battalion NCOIC’s first mistake. Coop put a full burst of power into driving his knee into the SGM’s side. The blow knocked the NCO off Coop, and allowed him to get back to his feet. He pressed the attack while the SGM was off balance, but it didn’t do much good as the older soldier casually batted away Coop’s strikes.

Coop stepped back and looked for an opening while quickly checking the stopwatch in the corner of his HUD.

<Only halfway there?!> Time did not fly when you were getting your ass kicked. <Fuck it!> The only thing worse than losing was going down like a little bitch, so he charged again.

He played it smart though. He didn’t let his anger or frustration get to him. He followed the techniques they’d been taught, and used every ounce of his power to keep just a centimeter away from the SGM taking his head off. He got a bit worried when he dropped below ten percent power and the SGM was still pounding on him.

All around, Coop the other members of Alpha weren’t doing so hot. Melissa hadn’t lasted two minutes against a GYSGT. She was on her back, and the GYSGT had her blades pressed against Melissa’s chest. That was a kill blow if Coop had ever seen one.

Whitehead wasn’t doing much better. He looked like he was being chased around the cube by another MSG. Whitehead was quick though. He might be able to make it to three minutes if his power levels held out.

Mike was locked in a grapple with MSG Smith. Coop’s best friend was the only one of Alpha Team that came close to the big NCO’s weight class.

<You got it, Mike. Kick his ass!>

But the moment Coop thought it, MSG Smith got his hip into Mike’s gut and flipped him over and onto the ground. There, the struggle continued with one of the MSG’s blades already pressing against Mike’s shoulder.

<Twenty more seconds.> Coop’s power level fell to six percent, but he gave it everything he had. He even made the SGM take a few steps back to avoid some chops that could have been fatal.

With five seconds left the SGM came out of left field with a high kick that sent Coop flying out of his cube and suffering from a severe case of whiplash. He was sure he’d find a big indent in his armor that matched the SGM’s boot, but that was a secondary issue to all the ERROR lights that were going off on his HUD. He was down to two percent power and systems were getting shut down to sustain critical operations.

“TIME!” Someone yelled out the sweetest words Coop had ever heard.

“Help Alpha.” The MSG ordered and Coop felt two people grab him. “Medics and armorers are standing by to pry you out of your LACS and fix anything we broke.  Bravo, you’re up.”

“Did we make it?” Coop sent over the team channel that was still in the STRATNET system from the riot.

“I don’t know.” Mike didn’t sound happy, which didn’t bode well.

It took two armorers fifteen minutes to get Coop out of his armor. The SGM had done some damage with the enhanced kick, and the large dent made it difficult to open and close the suit. By the time Coop got out the other three teams had already fought the instructors with varying levels of success.

“On me.” MSG Smith announced once everyone was pried, pulled, and extracted from the LACS. “This last test was also your last lesson. None of you will survive against a seasoned HI combatant.” The MSG didn’t sugar coat it. “The rest of that training is up to you. Get with the other HI in your battalion. Train with them, and make sure you’re ready when you have to go up against a nutcracker, because all of you would have died today in a real fight.” The other cadre were already gone and back to their end of week activities.

“The good news,” the MSG continued, “is that even though some of you didn’t make it to the three minute mark you’ve impressed me enough to recommend you all for graduation.”

That caused a wave of relief to wash over them all.

“So get back outside and fall in, Alpha Company.”

Coop was too happy to care what was about to happen. He just did what he was told.

Back out in the motorpool SGM Crum stood in his CMUs with LCDR Tully and LT Swanson. The battalion command team gave them all a nod as they fell in with MSG Smith at the front of the formation.

“Congratulations on another class well-trained, Master Sergeant.” LCDR Tully and the MSG exchanged salutes and the MSG jogged to the back of the formation as the battalion commander stepped forward.

“Congratulations to you as well, Alpha Company. I’m not going to bore you with quotes on loyalty, respect, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity, or personal courage. You have all earned your place in the brotherhood of Heavy Infantry. You are now the most powerful land combat troops in the galaxy. With that power comes incredible responsibility, so use that power wisely, do your job, and bring the rain.”

With his little speech completed, the LCDR read the orders promoting several of the newly certified HI troopers to PFC. Coop among them.

There wasn’t any more ceremony, pomp, or circumstance to the graduation. This wasn’t Basic. It was only 1800 when the LCDR released the graduated troopers on their two-day pass before they went into the real infantry.

Despite wanting to go out and drink his face off Coop settled for a gut-busting dinner at a local diner with the rest of Alpha Team before hitting the sack.

<I can party over the next two days before shipping out,> he told himself.

Coop fell asleep that night one pay grade higher, with a bigger paycheck due in his account, and with a bit more self-respect. He’d survived a tough school. Now, he just needed to survive whatever the galaxy threw at him.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 99

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Space between Mars and Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Mary mother of fuck that’s good.” Several heads around the chow hall turned as Coop took a big gulp of the beer and sighed.

There were some traditions in the Commonwealth Navy that were holdovers from the old nations that had originally comprised it. One of those traditions was the rum ration. They’d tried to get rid of it in the twentieth century, and that didn’t work out well, so they’d brought it back to life when the Commonwealth was created. There had been some minor adjustments though. First, they didn’t serve rum anymore because there was a real safety concern. So, the new rum ration ended up as a single beer a day that could be consumed when the soldier or spacer was off duty and only in the chow hall.

After a day of fighting Rats in the streets of Old Chicago, the brigade, battalion, and ship’s CO thought it was a good idea to let the troops have a beer and blow off some steam.

<It’s real beer!> That alone was more than Coop was accustomed to.

Back in the PHA they had booze, but it was cheap ass shit either distilled in the secret bowels of the PHA towers, or putrid soy crap allotted as part of the BSA ration. It would get you drunk but it would rot your gut in the process. There was more than one welfare Rat out there who didn’t see fifty from drinking all that shit.

“Ahhhhh.” Coop reclined in his chair and looked around.

The chow hall was packed full of soldiers. Some were upbeat and shooting the shit with each other, while others looked like they’d just bit into a lemon. A few of the latter ones were shooting Coop glares, but he didn’t care. They’d just come through their first combat action and lived. If there was anything to celebrate it was that.

“To alpha team.” Coop raised his already half gone beer. “We got to go down into those sewers and kind of blow shit up, and we all made it out with nothing more than some nicked scales. Next weekend we graduate and then I probably won’t see your ugly mugs again.”

Melissa and Whitehead laughed as they clinked their beers to Coops. The woman muttered something under her breath, probably something to do with counting down the minutes until she got away from Coop, but no one caught it. The only one who didn’t cheer was Mike. He just sat there with a scrunched-up face.

“What burrowed into your asshole?” Coop asked as he downed another quarter of his beer in a single gulp.

Mike gave him a quick glare, eyed everyone around them, and raised his glass. “To absent friends.”

<Shit.> Coop felt like a real asshole as the smirk was wiped from his face and he raised his own glass. This round of clinks was much more subdued.

As far as casualties went the 1894th hadn’t taken any. They might have been facing off against a few hundred thousand angry Rats, but they were still wearing heavy battle armor designed to shrug off small arms fire and keep on charging. The regular grunts throughout the rest of the brigade hadn’t been so lucky. Coop knew about the one time the Rats had nearly broken through the defensive line, and then there was that building that had come down, so there were casualties. Coop didn’t have any numbers or any idea who they were, but the glares they’d been getting around the room said that maybe a few of those fallen soldiers’ friends were in the room with them.

<That killed the mood.> Coop finished off his beer and got to his feet just as his PAD chirped.

He pulled it out of his CMU’s thigh pocket and checked the message. The MSG wanted to see him for his after action review. Coop knew it was coming, and as far as he’d heard he was going to be the first person in the company to get one.

<Oh joy.> He gave a nod to his teammates, tossed his beer bottled in the recycler, and headed back toward the massive hangar that comprised the majority of the turtle-shaped transport ships.

Just like on the ride over, the MSG had made them strip out of their armor for the three hour ride back. They’d all downloaded their suit data to the NCOIC and he was reviewing it before the individual AARs. So it was no surprise when Coop walked into Venom Two-One’s empty troop bay and saw the MSG still in his armor.

“Take a seat, Cooper.” The MSG’s armored form was standing totally still, but Coop knew there was a lot going on inside the duro-steel shell.

“You should really grab a beer, Master Sergeant.” Coop tried to break the ice with a grin. “Everyone else is.”

The suggestion got no reply aside from the armored gauntlet pointing impatiently at the padded chairs, so Coop took a seat and waited.

“Hopefully you know this already, Cooper, but an after action review is a recap of a mission where we analyze what happened and offer sustains and improves. First off, I want to congratulate you on a job well done leading alpha team.”

The congratulations took Coop off guard. “Thanks, Master Sergeant, I was just doing my job.”

“You did more than that,” the NCO continued. “You thought outside the box. You literally thought about what was underneath the box. You relayed that information up the chain of command and with that information brigade was able to circle the wagons before the Rats came out of the ground and took us by surprise everywhere.”

If Coop didn’t know better he could have sworn the MSG sounded proud.

“Your team also did a good job of scouting that tunnel and slowing down one of the Rats’ avenues of approach. I watched the footage and what you had your team do with the anti-personnel shells was smart. Artillery isn’t that useful underground, but mines are.”

“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” Coop smiled as his ego doubled in size.

“Because of these two actions I’m putting your team in for Commonwealth Achievement Medals.”

“CAMs!” Coop couldn’t hide his surprise.

It wasn’t a commendation medal, meritorious service medal, or any of the bigger awards that he’d learned about in Basic, but it was something to put on his uniform that didn’t make him look like every other shitbag Private in the service.

“You earned it, Cooper. You and your team did good work.”

“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” Coop got to his feet still feeling pretty good about life.

“Where do you think you’re going?” The MSG’s armored head swiveled toward him before his ass was more than a few centimeters off the cushion. “That was just the sustains, with an example of you and your team going beyond what was asked of you. We haven’t even gotten to the improves yet.”

<Why does that make me nervous?> Coop couldn’t see the NCO’s face, but something had changed.

“We need to talk about this.” Holographic imagery appeared between Coop and the MSG.

It detailed, in slow motion, the point in the battle where Coop had just climbed up out of the sewer. The team was providing cover fire while he was trying to stick the lid back on the manhole. A Rat unloaded his old-fashioned pistol into Coop, Coop smacked him aside with the manhole cover, and then smashed it back into place so Mike could jerry-rig a welding job to keep the hundreds of Rats below ground bottled up.

Coop watched it all play from beginning to end twice and didn’t see an issue.

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Master Sergeant. My team and I did a great job of securing the threat.”

“Yes and no.” The MSG put his large metal hands on his hips. “What were our orders concerning the civilians.”

“We weren’t supposed to use lethal rounds. Any missile use had to go through the battalion CO.” Coop paraphrased the standing orders from memory.

“That’s the letter of the order. What was the intent?”

<You’ve got to be shitting me!> Coop caught on a moment later.

“Am I being thrown under the bus for braining the one guy!?”

“Cooper, you used his head as a fucking piñata.” The MSG countered, much more intimidating in his LACS. “And then you left all the inside goodies splattered against an alley wall.”

“Come on, Master Sergeant. The dude literally emptied his whole clip into my dick.” Coop made circular motions around his crotch to emphasize the point. “There is no way that wasn’t justified.”

“Cooper, what were you wearing when that happened?”

“What?”

“What were you wearing?” The NCO repeated.

“I was wearing my LACS,” Coop replied.

“Was that peashooter the guy was unloading on you with going to do anything to penetrate your LACS?”

<Fuck.>

Coop paused for a moment, “No, Master Sergeant.”

“You used excessive force outside the commander’s intent for this mission, Cooper. This wasn’t the only time you overreacted when confronted with a situation.”

“Master Sergeant?” Now Coop didn’t know what he was talking about.

The MSG fast-forwarded the holo until they got to the point in the fight when the Rats starting lobbing flaming bottles at the HI troopers. “Here.” He stabbed a metal finger as Coop’s reaction when fire from the exploding bottle blanketed him. “You freaked the fuck out and fell back from the line, and even worse, you almost got overrun while you were busy rolling around on the ground.”

<Oh shit.> Coop knew the MSG was right, he just didn’t like admitting it.

“Your big improve for this mission, Cooper, is to understand the difference between taking an attack in your skin versus in a LACS. You don’t need to be worried about fire, or even more small arms. The suit will protect you, that’s what it is there for.”

Coop didn’t know how they’d gone from talking about his good thinking and courage to him being a scared little bitch, but they’d done it.

“The battalion CO is probably going to formally reprimand you for this.” The MSG continued.

“What?!” Coop couldn’t believe it.

“He could give you extra duty or dock your pay, but it’ll probably just be a counseling and a written reprimand in your file. Lieutenant Commander Tully knew he was taking FNGs into the field, and he’ll take that into consideration.” The MSG turned off the holo. “Any questions?”

<Can I have another beer?> Was what Coop really wanted to ask.

“No, Master Sergeant.”

“Good. Go grab the rest of your team and have them line up by the Spyder to see me. I’ve got a lot of these counselings to do, and I want to be done with them by the time we hit Mars orbit. I’ve got enough paperwork to do in your last week without this.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.” Coop got up, walked down the ramp, and went to execute his orders.

<I wonder what everyone else is doing?> He thought of Eve and the other members of his Basic class. <Probably not getting chewed out for doing their fucking jobs. I’m a soldier, I don’t use my words to solve problems.> He still couldn’t believe he was getting busted excessive force when his entire job description was the use of excessive force. <I’m HI. If the Rats had their feelings hurt they shouldn’t have rioted in the first place.> That’s how he felt, and a written reprimand wasn’t going to change that.

 

***

 

Eve Berg

Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Ranger candidates!” SGM Queen barked as he stalked back and forth across the ramp of the Spyder.

The ramp was open, and the assault shuttle was buzzing above the ground at a leisurely fifty kilometers per hour. That was nothing for a craft that could easily go supersonic, but it still made the ground race by only ten meters below them.

“Up until now you forty have met the standard. You haven’t exceeded it, you’ve just met it. You all have shown basic competence with the V3 Leonidas Armored Combat Suit, and are moderately proficient in squad level tactics. But that doesn’t make you special. In fact that just makes you like every other grunt or HI trooper in the infantry. You’ve just worked with fancier gear. It’s what comes next that what will make you Rangers.”

“What do you think, Ice?” SGT Diggle elbowed Eve in the ribs. “What fresh torture do they have in store for us today?”

No one in her ranger class, which had already lost a third of its candidates, called her Eve or Berg anymore. Not everyone in the class had a nickname, but she did. The full version was “that ice cold bitch”, but those closer to her called her “Ice”.

The name came out of necessity. There were a lot of roosters and only a few hens in the forty-person Ranger class, and after months you could cut the sexual tension with a spork. In her mind, Eve only had one option. She didn’t want to get worn down and fuck someone like a few other candidates who were no longer in the class. This wasn’t Basic and they didn’t put up with that shit.

Eve just turned it off. She shut down that side of her that missed Coop, missed what they’d done that weekend outside Stewart-Benning, and instead became an ice cold bitch that had punched out more than one wannabe who came on to her. So far, it was working out pretty well.

“Welcome to SERE phase, candidates.” The way the SGM said it made everyone shiver.  Even the woman named Ice. “Survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. That is what you are going to be doing this phase. Squad leaders, distribute the parcels.”

SGT Diggle was Eve’s squad leader, and she could have done worse. Unlike most of the guys who thought she was an ice queen, Diggle actually liked her. She was that annoying, hard-ass younger sister he’d always wanted. As such, he handed her the first parcel. Despite wanting to open it Eve didn’t. She’d learned to be cautious. Some stupid dipshit had opened stuff before they were authorized to before, and had that shit explode in their face. That as all the motivation she needed to quell the curiosity. There was no bigger motivator to not do something than to see some poor bastard with his thumbs blown off.

“Open it.” The SGM instructed after everyone had one.

Eve did what she was told and found a bare minimum of supplies.

<Now the last week makes sense.>

After weeks in the field doing combat training, the ranger candidates had spent a solid week doing nothing but wilderness survival, woodcraft, sheltercraft, learning traps and snares, food and water procurement, water purification techniques, improvising equipment, first aid, and camouflage techniques. Now, it seemed they were going to put it all to good use.

“This is all you’ve got.” The SGM pointed down at the bare minimum of equipment, the biggest of which was a five centimeter duro-steel knife. “So make it count. ON YOUR FEET!”

Everyone jumped to their feet and automatically lined up by squads.

“STEP FORWARD!” The SGM motioned all the squad leaders to step up to where the open ramp started to angle downward.

“Your mission is to survive for the next week. I don’t care how you do it, but you must survive to pass this phase. Don’t look so smug,” The old NCO’s eyes scanned the group, “because mother nature isn’t the only SOB waiting for you down there.”

With his piece said, the SGM grabbed the first squad leader by the collar of his dirty CMUs and tossed him out the back of the moving Spyder.

Eve’s mouth opened in shock. <Did he just kill Anderson?>

Half a second later they saw water underneath the Spyder and Anderson splash down a dozen meters from shore.

“GO…GO…GO!” The SGM yelled, and the thirty-nine remaining candidates leapt out of the Spyder and into the lukewarm water.

A kilometer away, a group of instructors crouched on the other side of the small lake. Their faces were obscured by mud, and their CMUs were camouflaged by the native foliage. Once they saw the last candidate hit the water they started to move out.

“Let’s go bag us some fresh meat.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 98

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Old Chicago, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Change of mission!” MSG Smith slid into position a few meters from Coop like a runner sliding into home base.

The bulky, armored NCO was a one-man reaction force. He was sprinting all around the building and offering more firepower wherever the STRATNET maps said it was needed, and right now that was Alpha Team’s position.

The pillar Coop was taking cover behind looked like a once mighty tree someone had taken a chainsaw to. The polyplast layer to protect the old architecture was already blown to shit, and to call the remains architecture was stretching the definition of the word to its limits. What it was now was something to put between Coop and the rioters trying to kill him.

<In their defense I’ve probably killed a few of them.>

Coop inched out behind the barrier and his targeting display lit up. The area was still a target rich environment, and red silhouettes popped up on his HUD. He took aim, squeezed the trigger, and a single non-lethal round leapt out of his Buss. The round splattered into the target’s chest, knocked him over, but didn’t kill him. What the Rat did get was an extreme case of crotch rot as the nanites packed into the round headed south and proceeded to irritate the crap out of his junk.

<Yeah, I’d be out of the fight too.> Coop cringed as he saw the guy scramble for cover with his hand down his pants.

Coop repeated the process twice before the enemy targeted him. A round ricocheted off his shoulder and another off his head before he pulled back behind cover. His HUD kept track of his ammunition and he was down to only one hundred and seventy-two rounds in this barrel. He only had three thousand-round reloads left, and while that might seem like a lot he’d gone through double that in the last twenty minutes.

<Twenty minutes where people seem to have been too busy with their thumbs up their asses to make a decision about what the fuck we’re going to do.> He fumed.

“About time!” He answered the MSG’s statement with genuine enthusiasm. “Please tell me we’re getting the fuck out of here?”

“New mission.” The MSG ignored Coop. “Right now the regional government employees are backing up all of their data onto portable drives. In one-five minutes that process will be complete. For the next fifteen minutes we hold the perimeter, after that we fall back by squad into the building and up to the roof. Battalion command has set up a few defensive strongpoints inside the building to hold until the Spyders can get here and get everyone out. Alpha team, this is your position.”

<Fan-fucking-tastic.> Coop immediately noticed that their positon was the first one. They’d be handing the defense of the main entrance with the objective of keeping the Rats pinned there while the civvies hauled ass to the roof.

“Any chance we can get some more ammo, Master Sergeant?” They wouldn’t be able to hold out for the next fifteen minutes with what they had.

“Last resupply is coming around in five. Grab what you can and hold. Understood?”

“Yes, Master Sergeant!”

Coop watched the NCO turn and hightail it to the next position. The big man could have relayed the orders over the company net, but there was something about getting the news in person that helped the situation.

“So,” Mike was the next soldier in the firing line. “What do you want to do when we get back to Mars?”

Coop choked out a laugh as he gunned down a squad-sized element of Rats that were trying to charge across the street. The laugh was half at Mike’s comment and half at the Rats. The skinny kids, they didn’t look like they were older than sixteen, were hefting crowbars and poylplast two-by-fours.

<They’ve been watching too many holos.> Coop thought as he gunned them down. <They’re called suicide charges for a reason.>

“Well.” Coop split his attention between Mike and the advancing masses of pissed off people. “A good woman and an ice cold beer sounds good to me.”

Mike’s sigh was drawn out over their personal chat line. “Don’t you want to try anything different? You can get your dick sucked and get drunk any day of the week. This needs to be more than that. We’ve just popped our combat cherry.”

“I don’t know if I’d call this combat.” Coop aimed and fired again.

<More like shooting a shotgun into a lake; only this time the fish are shooting back and there are a shit load of them.>

“But since I’m a generous man, if we get out of here unscathed then I’ll let you plan the party.”

Mike toggled back his agreement. It was a deal.

“Friendlies behind.” Two HI troopers trotted over to Coop’s position and dumped a load of magazines and shells onto the ground next to him before moving on.

“What the fuck…wait!” Coop yelled back, but they were already gone.

His HUD identified the armament from a quick peek. He’d just unceremoniously received another five cartridges of thousand- round non-lethal ammo. Three buckshot grenades and an anti-personnel artillery shell. He scooped up the rounds and grenades and stored them in his armor, but the artillery shell was just screaming to be used.

He reached behind himself and toggled to the screen. A rear section of the armor opened up that led to the auto-loader and Coop had to strain to reach behind his back and get the round slotted properly. In that time, two dozen rats started sprinting across the street and were within a dozen meters when he got his rifle back on target. He sprayed them down using the last of that barrel’s ammo, and radioed in a fire mission while he reloaded. While he slipped two new cartridges into the empty non-lethal ammo barrels the anti-personnel round thumped out of his tube and crashed into the alley where a lot of the bastards seemed to be coming from. The BOOM rattled the street, and his field of fire was momentarily cleared of red icons.

He looked at the countdown clock until they started their exfil. <Still twelve minutes!> Time was crawling along as they defended the building.

“Incoming!” Someone yelled at the seven minute mark.

For a second, Coop thought the Rats had finally gotten their hands on mortars or something. That wasn’t the case. Instead, his shoulder mounted railgun swiveled and automatically targeted a bottle that was being thrown across the street at his position.

“No!” He tried to stop it, but it was too late.

A three round burst spit from the gun, and the bottle exploded and fire spilled everywhere, including all over Coop.

Mentally, Coop knew he was fine. The LACS was designed to be worn by HI on volcanic worlds and still keep the wearer at a pleasant air-conditioned temperature of twenty-one degrees Celsius. But there was something about seeing fire coat your body that set your body into “oh shit” mode no matter what you were wearing.

“Motherfucker!” Coop didn’t even feel the heat, but he still tipped over and scrambled backwards in a crude attempt to stop, drop, and roll.

“Cooper, get back on the line!” The MSG’s voice roared over the net. “We’ve got incoming.”

It seemed the Rats had finally nutted up and were mass charging the perimeter. The Molotov Cocktails were just the first wave. More than Coop could count were streaming across the street and the fastest were already clearing the pillar he had been using for cover.

Those little shits’ faces looked triumphant until Coop cycled to the grenade barrel and unloaded a buckshot grenade into their faces, and anyone else’s within the hundred plus degree cone of fire. They all fell to the ground writhing and screaming with a few not moving at all.

“Everyone, fall back to the inside and take up position at your designated strongpoints.” The MSG ordered. “Do not, I repeat, do not use blades if the Rats get in close. They’re still citizens and we don’t want human shish kabobs on the evening news. That comes directly from Bulldog Six.”

Coop caught the ass covering the MSG did at the end. If it was up to the NCO he might have let them use blades if they got overrun, but now they’d never know. They had their orders.

“Let’s go Alpha Team, Whitehead and Melissa first, then me and Mike. Go!”

It had been drilled into them from the beginning that everyone turning tail and running away at the same time was a recipe to get shot in the ass. Retreats always needed to be orderly, or it would turn into a route and a lot of dead soldiers. So Mike and Coop held their ground, firing off a thousand rounds into the surging mass of Rats in the twenty-plus seconds it took the other two team members to haul ass inside.

“Now!”

Mike and Coop took turns leapfrogging in five second sprints back toward the main door. Even then, they were only a few meters ahead from the nearest Rats, so Coop fired off another buckshot grenade before he went through and locked the doors. It bought him ten seconds to sprint toward the strongpoint.

“Bottleneck them at the door.” It was the obvious course of action, and with the strongpoint behind a series of barriers erected on the balcony above, and offering full view of the door, it was what the battalion command group had in mind.

Polyplast didn’t crack and break like old-fashioned glass. Coop got to see as it got punched in more and more by volleys of gunfire from the Rats. Chucks fell out while the rest remained intact until it was finally punched out of the frame and fell to the ground.

“Concentrate fire, don’t let them get through to spread out. If they do, it’ll be like trying to root out cockroaches.”

“Cooper, we still have five minutes until the backup is done and the Spyders arrive. You need to hold, understood?”

“Yeah, sure thing, Master Sergeant. I’ll keep the whole city at bay over here while you all finish backing up your files.”

“Lock it up, Cooper, and get your shit together. Here they come.”

It wasn’t until then that Coop saw the MSG in cover where the balcony they were set up on met a hallway. The second door cracked open, fell in, and Rats tried to stream through. Five Busses roared their defiance and smacked people back as they tried to scramble through.

<Now that’s what a real clusterfuck looks like.>

The doors weren’t big, so they could only get a few people crammed through them at once. Since there were two sets of doors, there were people stuck in the small vestibule between them. Those people were literally getting squished between a rock and a hard place as the people in front got shot by Coop’s team, and the people behind tried to push in. People were falling all over the place, slipping on the broken polyplast doors, and trampling the Rats on the ground. Coop and the team weren’t killing the Rats trying to get in. The other Rats were doing that just fine by themselves.

“Melissa, pick off anyone that gets through.” Things were going good now, but when they eventually had to reload or the Rats would get the break they needed.

One girl got through before then. She squeezed behind a guy who took a round to the chest, and scrambled along the edge of the wall, trying to run along it and into a door that led to a section of cubicles. She had another fiery cocktail in her hands and looked ready to burn the fucking building to the ground.

She only made it halfway there before Melissa drilled her. She careened sideways, smacked her head against the marble wall, and collapsed to the ground. The bottle burst, spreading fire across the floor and all over her. She regained consciousness quick when her brain realized her body was on fire, but by then it was too late. If Coop had lethal rounds he would have put the girl out of her misery, but instead he had to watch her burn.

<Hopefully that doesn’t spread.> He watched the fire sizzling on the ground, but he didn’t have time to split his attention.

The Rats were still trying to push through the doors like everything they’d ever wanted in life was on the other side. It was sheer madness.

Then the team had to start reloading, and that’s where people started to get through. Melissa picked some off, but then groups of two got through. She only got one before the other scrambled behind cover or out of sight. Sooner than Coop would have liked there were two-dozen through the doors and shooting up the place. Some had more cocktails and were throwing them at random. Soon Coop’s sensors told him there was a lot of smoke in the air.

“Master Sergeant, this whole fucker is going to go up in flames. You almost done?”  Coop didn’t bother with tact.

“Three minutes, Cooper, in two you start falling back. Bravo team will cover you.” The MSG cut the line, and Coop’s barrel ran dry.

“Fuck!” He reached into his armor but it was empty. “I’m out of non-lethal.” Coop switched to the grenades and started lobbing them into the surge of people below.

The buckshot blew through the Rats like a giant decided to step on them, and the gas helped a bit, but the Rats kept coming. They were already streaming to the foot of the staircase that led to the team’s position.

“Melissa!” Coop was desperate now. “Grab an anti-personnel from my loader, prime the fucker and toss it down there.”

“Are you fucking serious?!”

Coop couldn’t tell because of the helmet, but he was sure her eyes were buggin’ out.

“That’ll…”

“Just do it!”

Melissa might think throwing an anti-personnel artillery shell into a building’s lobby was crazy, but she didn’t argue anymore. Coop opened the appropriate armor section and felt the jostle as Melissa grabbed what she needed.

“Give me twenty seconds.”

Twenty seconds went through all of Coop’s grenades and left him with the railgun and the stun beam that was utterly useless to deal with this many charging bodies. He still used it because that was all he had, but he kept the railgun rounds in reserve. There was no telling what would be waiting for them once they got onto the roof.

“Frag out!” Melissa yelled exactly twenty seconds later.

None of the team had to duck down, so they saw the shell, clearly meant to be detonated outside, explode inside. It was like a shockwave went through the lobby and knocked everyone on their ass.

“Fall back!” Coop seized the moment and pulled his team out to run down the hall. Behind them he could hear more Rats picking their way through their fallen friends and doing god knew what to the area around the lobby.

“Alpha Team on the move,  ETA ten seconds. Don’t light us up.” He sent ahead of them.

The teams’ enhanced muscles propelled them quickly down the hall. They rounded two corners before they came to another choke point. Bravo team was station behind a wall of furniture, which they sprinted past. Alpha team had done their part, and Coop led the way as they passed two more strongpoints and emerged onto the roof.

“Give me a perimeter around the LZ!” The battalion commander yelled the second he caught sight of Coop. “Eyes out. Make sure no one takes a shot at the Spyders as they lift off.”

Coop could see one of the war machines on the rooftop loading up people and big boxes hovering a meter above the ground. He assumed that was all the data they’d backed up. Two more seemed to be circling the building and waiting for their chance to land.

“Four corners!” Coop yelled and the team took up the positions he assigned over STRATNET.

Coop took the one closest to the door, and split his attention between the roof entrance and the surrounding buildings.

<We’re sitting ducks down here.>

“Bravo team falling back.”

“Charlie team falling back.”

“Delta team falling back.” The three other teams announced in several minute intervals. “Master Sergeant, they’re going to be on our ass when we arrive, so be ready.” Delta team’s leader sounded stressed.

They hadn’t taken any fire yet, but Coop knew it was only a matter of time. The original Spyder had loaded up the boxes and as many civilians as it could hold before taking off, and the second Spyder took care of the rest. The third and final Spyder was Venom Two-One, their bird, and it was coming to take the Company home.

“Haul ass, Delta!” The MSG’s motivating words were unneeded as the four HI troopers busted through the door at a run.

They were halfway to the Spyder when the Rats came through.

“Contact rear!” Coop, resupplied with a few more cartridges since arriving, opened up on them.

But they just kept coming. All the might and power an HI trooper held, and the Rats didn’t care.

<Maybe it’s because they know we aren’t trying to kill them.> Coop wondered how it would have all played out if they’d gone in with regular ammunition.

It didn’t matter though, they just kept coming. After enough got through, they started to spread to the sides with the intent of encircling the Spyder.

“We need to go, NOW!” Coop yelled over the company net. Just about everyone else was in the Spyder, and as far as Coop was concerned that made him in charge on the ground. “Melissa, Whitehead.” He didn’t need to say anymore. “Venom Two-One, we could use a little assistance if you don’t want Rats crawling up your ass.”

“Negative, Alpha One-One, tail gunner only has lethal rounds.”

<Who’s fucking bright idea was that?> Coop saw the blue icon of his two team members disappear up the assault shuttle’s back ramp.

“Let’s go, Mike!” Coop got up from his kneeling firing position and ran, and the Rats sprinted after him.

“Venom Two-One take off now!”  Coop was last, still ten meters away when the shuttle started to pick up off the roof.

The Rats’ screams of rage behind him told Coop he’d made the right call, but as the shuttle rose meter by meter he needed to concentrate.

<Bend the knees, a little power, but not too much…and now!> Coop’s enhanced legs shot him into the air and into the back of the rapidly rising shuttle. <Swish motherfucker.>

Rounds started to crack against the shuttle’s hull, but it would hardly scratch the paint. Until…

“One…two…three, inbound. BRACE!” The pilot put the Spyder into a spin that avoided the three centuries old RPG’s launched at them from the surrounding towers.

It was good for the bird because it avoided them taking a shot and possibly letting something vital get hit. However, it was bad for Coop because he wasn’t strapped in.

He felt like clothes in a dryer as he tumbled around the troop bay, smashing into everything and everyone.

“God damnit, Cooper!” The MSG reached out and tried to grab him but missed.

It was Mike’s iron-like grip that finally clamped down on his leg and held him in place. The ramp was starting to close, but not before Coop caught the distinctive contrail of an incoming round.

“Venom, one’s about to buttfuck you!” Coop’s railgun swiveled and let out a long burst.

It caught the RPG just in time and it exploded about twenty meters from the shuttle. If Coop had missed that things would have come right into the bay, exploded, and taken down the whole shuttle.

“No need to thank me.” Coop announced as the Spyder leveled out and climbed rapidly out of range of any more attacks.

“Sit down, strap in, and shut up, Cooper.” The MSG sounded uncharacteristically tired as they left Old Chicago behind.

Coop felt the same wave of exhaustion settle over him as they left the battlefield behind, and with it came a sense of failure. They’d accomplished their mission. They’d taken the data they needed, got the civilians out safely, and no one had more than some bumps and bruises. Their mission was a complete success.

<Then why does it feel like we didn’t accomplish shit.> Coop pulled up the STRATNET display.

The brigade was pulling out of the city. The hawks and doves were clashing across the river, and even though he couldn’t see it Coop knew the city was burning.

“Fuck it.” He muttered to himself. “Just get me off this fucking rock. I never want to come back. Things will be better out there.” He looked up toward space, and wondered what Mike had planned for them once they got home.

Because Earth wasn’t his home anymore.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 95

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Old Chicago, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“I thought I was done with this shit,” Coop grumbled to himself as he led his fire-team into the sewers of Old Chicago.

“You and me both,” Mike replied. Apparently, Coop was still tied into the team network and broadcasting.

They’d traveled a few hundred meters from the manhole cover and hadn’t seen anything, but it was still early. Their millimeter wave radars were active and mapping every minute detail of the sewer as they moved farther into the bowels of the city. So far, the coast was clear.

What was happening on the surface was a different story. Their HUD’s still updated in real-time, and STRATNET and TACCOM were as clear as they were above ground. The Rats who made up the majority of the anti-war movement were everywhere. They had pushed the infantry brigade back a block from the river, but the brigade seemed to be holding there. The building the Rats had brought down had almost turned the soldiers’ flank and folded them up, but Commander Reinhardt wasn’t a green shavetail fresh out of Officer-U. Coop could still see the Sypders doing gun runs along the enemy lines, and the icons of freshly dropped gas littered the space where the hole in the line had been.

<They’re holding for now.> But the line along the Chicago River wasn’t really the problem.

The problem was that every Commonwealth position to the rear of the line had an angry red circle around the small cluster of blue. The Rats had forced the Commander to commit a large percentage of his force to holding the line while the Rats snuck underground and surrounded the strategic locations they were trying to protect.

<And they’ve sent a four-man team to recon and stop them. That’s just fucking brilliant.> Coop was still brainstorming ways to stop thousands from stampeding through the tunnels when he couldn’t blow anything up.

If there was any good news it was that the couple hundred-thousand pro-defense protestors seemed to be content controlling just the near side of the north bank. With most of the brigade deployed to the eastern side of the river, there were only about fifteen hundred soldiers standing between Coop’s position and the pro-defense people.

<They’re better armed, better trained, and they shot down a Spyder.> That part had been a surprise to everyone, and a fair amount of luck.

Rats in the PHA were always armed, but they didn’t have MANPADS and gas masks able to filter out the riot gas the HI was lobbing at everyone. <Are they burbanites and vets?> If they were, Coop had a new respect for what the softies from the burbs were capable of when they came out in force.

But all of that was semantics at this point. What he really needed to be focusing on was stopping the shit that was happening in these tunnels.

The universe snapped his mind back to the present as his armored boot came down on something with a sickly squish. They were walking in a few centimeters of water, so Coop could have stepped in literal shit or it could have been a four-legged rat. There really wasn’t much of a difference when his one-ton armor stomped down on it. All that came back up was a flattened pancake of brown.

“Let’s get this the fuck over with.” Coop ordered his team to move faster.

“I’ve got contact. Two hundred meters ahead around the bend.” Whitehead informed ten seconds later.

The HUDs updated and a mass of red icons populated on the screen. It appeared that a wave of reinforcements was heading to the capitol building Alpha Company was defending.

“If they wanted a proper recon they should have given us a drone.” Coop looked around their current position for someplace to find cover, but they were in a metal tunnel with nothing but smooth walls all the way forward and back to ninety-degree turns at either end.

“We’ve got about thirty seconds until a few hundred Rats come around that corner.” Melissa was covering their rear, but she still saw everything coming their way through the HUD.

“Fuck it.” Coop growled as their mission fell apart. “Mike, Whitehead, I want gas grenades down their throats the second they come around that corer. We’ll fall back to that intersection back there. Melissa, eject your anti-personnel arty rounds and rig them as sensor mines. Stick them on the walls every fifty meters and have them register anything not in armor as hostile.”

Coop was thankful he’d stayed awake during that rainy afternoon class concerning the alternative functions of the artillery munitions they fired from their 125mm tubes. One such use was as a jerry-rigged mine. He was sure Melissa knew the simple procedure. The hardest part was reaching around your back and getting the round when the computer popped it out of the tube.

There was a loud clang as the shell was discharged from the LACS. It wasn’t exactly meant to be subtle, and that screwed them right now. The red icons on their HUDs paused momentarily and then started to charge twice as fast toward them.

“Melissa, GO!” Coop yelled as he took a knee while Mike and Whitehead rotated their barrels to the grenade chamber.

Ten seconds later Rats streamed around the corner howling like a pack of wild hyenas.

“FIRE!”

Two gas grenades popped out of the Buss’ barrels and exploded right in the charging mobs faces. Coop saw the explosive detonation blow chunks out of the front rank of charging Rat’s, but he didn’t care. There were a lot of angry people who really looked like they wanted to take a can opener to his LACS, pull him out, and beat him to death with their bare hands.

“COVER FIRE!” Coop and Mike opened fire with the non-lethal rounds as the gas from the grenades did its job, and Whitehead fell back to the intersection.

Ten seconds later, Mike tapped Coop on the shoulder to let him know he was bounding back. Coop barely registered it. He was in the zone. This was what was known as a target rich environment. Everything in front of Coop was red, and his targeting computer barely had to lift a silicone finger as Coop laid into the bottlenecked Rats. He fired until there was a soft click of an empty magazine.

“MOVING!” He let the guys behind him know that he was on his way.

His mind didn’t even comprehend that he’d just fired a thousand rounds into a pack of Rats, and was automatically reloading that chamber with another thousand-round magazine as he ran full speed toward a friendly position.

Non-lethal rounds tore down the tunnel as Mike and Whitehead covered his ass. He rounded the corner at a sprint, ricocheted off the wall, and a second later…BOOM.

One of Melissa’s ten anti-personnel artillery shells detonated as the Rats crossed the laser tripwire. The tunnel funneled the noise to the point that the LACS automatically shut down external audio. The anti-personnel shell wasn’t a real anti-personnel shell that they would have used against Blockie troops. This was a non-lethal one, but it was basically a supped-up version of the buckshot grenades Coop had yet to fire. When detonated, it fired off hundreds of low-velocity little plastic balls that were supposed to break on impact. Of course, break on impact didn’t mean that guy whose head was right next to the shell when it exploded wasn’t going to be turned to mush.

“Back to the manhole!” Coop yelled when a second anti-personnel shell detonated less than ten seconds later.

Those shells had to be taking down dozens of Rats, but it wasn’t slowing them down much. Even the gas didn’t seem that effective.

The LACS audio was still muted, but if Coop had to guess he hypothesized that there would be a lot of screaming, cries of pain, and demands for blood.

<I’m supposed to be on Mars, not in this shithole.> Coop wondered why the universe was trying to fuck him over again when the first red-faced, manic Rat charged around the corner twenty-five meters behind them – and got turned into human pudding when a third anti-personnel shell exploded right beside him.

A few of the plastic balls peppered Coop’s armor, but they didn’t even scratch the paint.

<What the fuck is wrong with these people?> The Rats behind the churned-up guy only paused for a few seconds before charging forward again. <They’ve got to be high as fuckin’ kites to run right into gunfire like that.> Coop was ejecting another thousand-round magazine and reloading before he knew it.

Getting drugged up before a fight had been a tactic since the beginning of time. It heightened the pain threshold, shut down emotions, and let you keep going when your mind would normally tell you to stop. All of that equaled bad news for Alpha Team.

“Mike, get up the ladder and clear that alley. Melissa and Whitehead after him. I’ll hold them off until you’re up top, then I want the fucking manhole cover welded on so they can’t follow me.”

Green acknowledgements lit up Coop’s HUD, and they executed.

The ladder shuddered as Mike jumped to the top and threw off the manhole cover. Then he jumped out and Coop didn’t see what happened, but there was about a dozen red icons that vanished from STRATNET. Melissa and Whitehead went next, and then it was just Coop. All alone with hundreds of angry Rats who were drawing closer and closer no matter how many rounds he put into them.

He popped out another empty magazine with one hand, and held his Buss and fired with the other as the chamber rotated and started spitting out more non-lethal rounds. His weapon was firing on full automatic and mowing down Rats, but they never seemed to stop. When one went down another one took his place, and then another, and another, until Coop’s rifle clicked empty and they surged forward another meter until the chamber rotated and started spitting out more rounds to take them down.

<This isn’t going to work.> He watched the ammo-count on his HUD drop quickly.

Thankfully, he had another option to hold them off. His back was already to the ladder when the chamber ran dry and he turned to start climbing. The Rats saw him retreating and roared like the blood-thirsty army they were and charged forward. They were only fifteen meters away and a few probably thought they could reach him before he exited the tunnel.

They were wrong.

The rail gun mounted on Coop’s shoulder rotated and opened fire on the charging Rats. Thousands upon thousands of rounds roared into the Rats. They fell by the dozens as Coop scrambled up the ladder and into the chaotic area surrounding the Commonwealth Capitol Building.

“Seal it!” He yelled as he pulled his feet out. His railgun went silent, and he grabbed the nearby manhole cover.

“With what?” Melissa’s Buss was chirping out three round bursts at something behind Coop.

“Mike, get over here and use your stun beam.”

Mike trotted over and Whitehead covered down on his position. They’d automatically set up a security perimeter with one trooper facing in either direction. There were quite a few non-moving Rats around them, but Coop didn’t stop to check for vitals.

Coop still had the manhole in one hand and his Buss in the other when the first Rat reached up out of the hole and grabbed him. It was an old guy, probably in his forties or fifties but looked seventy. He had an old pistol in his hand, and he proceeded to empty the fifteen-round magazine into Coop’s crotch area. The LACS armor deflected the low-velocity projectiles without a sweat, and Coop swung the manhole cover at the guy’s head.

The Rat’s brains splattered all over the side of the alley, and Coop kicked the rest of the body back into the hole. Its falling mass took two guys out behind him, but they just kept on coming. Coop rotated chambers again, and fired a buckshot grenade into the open hole. People screamed and everyone on the ladder fell back into the surging mass of humanity beneath them.

“I’ll hold it on, you fire.” Coop slammed the cover in place, and put his full weight on top of it.

Mike came up next to him and started to fire one-second bursts of the stunning beam into the metal of the manhole and the metal of its bracket. As a welding tool, the stun beams sucked, but after a solid minute of firing Mike had a descent seal going; at least enough to hold off a few people beating at it from below.

“Alpha One, this is One-One, over.”

“Report, One-One.” MSG Smith’s voice came back over the company net tense and hurried.

“That was a clusterfuck. Rat reinforcements are on the way.  We can confirm they are using the tunnels to move troops around, but we’re going to need something that goes boom if we want to seal the sewers.”

“Negative, One-One, fall back to the capitol building. Civilians are evacuating now, we only need to hold for another twenty minutes.”

Location icons flashed on Coop’s HUD telling him where the MSG wanted his team deployed.

“You heard him, let’s go. Melissa and Whitehead first, me and Mike second.”

“Master Sergeant, we’re coming across. Give us some cover fire.”

“Roger. Cover fire in three…two…one.”

The side of the capitol building facing the alley erupted in a mad minute of fire. Half a dozen HI troopers opened up with their Buss’, shoulder-mounted railguns, and more artillery fired gas rounds. It was clear for that minute that the Commonwealth, despite their numerical disadvantage, had fire superiority if they wanted it.

Alpha Team scrambled back across West Randolph and took up positions where the MSG had indicated.

“Have a nice break?” The MSG himself stepped up carrying a polyplast crate of ammunition.

“Yeah, it was sandy beaches, strong drinks, and topless babes down there, Master Sergeant.” Coop’s reply dripped with sarcasm as he grabbed more magazines. He’d gone through half his load down in the sewer, and his railgun was down nine thousand rounds.

<I wonder how many people I killed?> Non-lethal notwithstanding, that many rounds shot in such close quarters had to have punched somebody’s ticket. Not to mention the dude he’d basically beheaded.

“Hold this corner, Cooper. We aren’t going to be here too much longer, and we’re about to get some relief.”

Coop checked his HUD to see if there was an inbound Spyder with fresh troops, but he didn’t see anything. What he did see, after a minute of looking, was the western half of the pro-defense protesters finally crossing the bridges to the northwest and coming into contact with the north flank of the anti-war protesters. STRATNET had a live feed going, and it was quickly obvious that they were tearing into each other with a level of hatred only possible in opposite political viewpoints.

<Well shit. All we have to do is sit here and they’ll eventually just kill each other.> Several rounds impacting close to his head told him that wasn’t quite true, but he found comfort in the fact that the main aggressors were now fighting a two-front battle.

<Still, I can’t wait to get the fuck out of here and back to Mars. I signed up to get off this planet, not fight Rats in a metropolis’ streets.>

He leaned out around the column and fired off a three-round burst, hitting a Rat running for a new position in the torso, and flattening him into a writhing, screaming mess.

The evac couldn’t come soon enough.

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