Two Worlds – Chapter 148

Noah Grisham

Location: System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The place was in pandemonium. It was like a fox was in the chicken coup and biting off chicken heads left and right. Noah hadn’t ever seen a real fox, but they must have been ruthless creatures if whoever coined the phrase was telling the truth.

Alarms had started blaring once the Collie ship slingshotted around the planet. For a second they thought they’d dodged a bullet, only to find the bullet headed right at them faster than they expected. Everyone with a ship had abandoned the place when the distraction went off. Noah had been as surprised as anyone that they had old-school nukes, but the plan was great. Faruk knew his shit. It wouldn’t buy them a lot of time, but all the Collies would be able to get were some emission signatures, and if they were close enough some visuals.

“Shit!” By the time Noah and Able made it to the hanger they couldn’t locate anyone named Alvarez, and everyone was too busy getting the hell out of there.

When they got back to the arms dealer the shop was closed up and he was nowhere to be found.

“At least we have a name.” Able commented with a shrug as he walked toward Dawn. The guard Faruk had posted was long gone, but no one had done anything in the chaos.

“Can we make it?” Noah asked when they were both on the small bridge of the mining ship.

“If we leave now, yes.” Able was already powering up the engines. “They’ll get a good look at Dawn though.”

“We can always make adjustments.” But that wasn’t what Noah was worried about.

So far, this was his only lead on the people who’d fucked him over. All he had was the name ‘Alvarez’, definetly a fake name, and suspicions. That only went so far. He needed something more concrete that he could use to take action on. He needed people to pay for what they’d done, and there was a chance that if he ran he’d never get the vengeance he was looking for.

<What can you do if you’re dead?> That ultimately made up his mind.

“Get us out of here.”

The Dawn fled System 1861 like everyone else.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Argo, System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Lock and load boys and girls, the Devil is playing his fiddle and we’re invited to the party.” SGT O’Neil walked down the center of the group of soldiers.

The soldiers were loading weapons, running last-minute diagnostics on armor, or just shooting the shit with each other over private TACCOM channels. For a few of the green privates, this was their first rodeo, but not for Coop.

“What the hell is he talking about?” Coop was more of the shoot the shit type of person before an operation. There were only so many times you could run a diagnostic and get a green thumbs up.

“Sarge is from the Papal Planets. He’s got a scripture quote or something about the idle hands being the devil’s playground for just about everything. It’s annoying as fuck.” One of the ship’s assigned marines responded.

“Yeah, what the fuck is a fiddle anyway?” Coop scoffed.

“A fiddle is a bowed string musical instrument sometimes called a violin; although, they’re usually more primitively constructed or smaller than proper violins.” SGT O’Neil walked up to the two soldiers and stood between them. “There are countless stories of the Devil using music to seduce his victims.”

“Roger that, Sergeant. You’ve got nothing to worry about here. I’m not into dudes.” Coop replied with a straight face.

“Who said the Devil is a man, Cooper?” The Sergeant left Coop scratching his head as he moved on to check on the other soldiers in the assault team.

Argo was decelerating for an intercept with the asteroid, but the rock taking pot shots at her with energy beams was making the process longer than expected. Coop wasn’t worried though. He’d overheard the CPO on the bridge telling Ben that the beams looked like they were being aimed by a five-year-old, and even if they miraculously hit Argo they wouldn’t do much more than scratch her paint. They were meant to dissuade someone without military-grade ES armor.

“Ten minutes, marines.” The SGT announced, so apparently things were moving along quickly now.

The issue they’d run into while planning the operation was the insertion portion. There were three possibilities the skipper and marine NCO came up with. The first was to fly Argo into their hanger and use the railguns as point defense against anything and anyone the pirates threw against them. That plan had been quickly shot down when it had been pointed out that they’d fired two nukes at them and there could easily be another one set up as a self-destruct mechanism to get rid of any evidence on the asteroid. That was not something Coop liked to hear as one of the people who would likely be inside the asteroid when it happened.

Option number two was a short space walk on the crust, followed by blowing the doors, and then insertion. This was a better idea than putting Argo in danger, but it would still leave the marines vulnerable to attack or any countermeasures on the surface of the asteroid. A cursory scan had already shown a few poorly-hidden mines.

Option number three – the option eventually approved by the skipper and SGT O’Neil – was to use the gunboat’s small shuttle. It put the fewest number of soldiers at risk and would allow the marines to get a foothold on the asteroid by ferrying soldiers back and forth. It sounded good on paper, but it sucked ass for Coop. The shuttle was only big enough for the pilot and maybe three tightly-packed marines, but the SGT wasn’t going to send three lightly-armed soldiers into an unpredictable situation. They were going to send Coop.

“That’s why you get paid the big bucks.” A marine patted Coop’s hulking armored frame when he got the good news.

“I don’t get paid any more than you do. This is bullshit,” Coop shot back, but kept the last bit to himself.

Now, he was stuffing himself into the back of the shuttle. The thing was used to transport VIPs back and forth, and had not been designed for a fully-armed HI trooper. “I ain’t fixing this shit.” Coop announced as he scraped up the walls, cracked some display, and tore up the lining of the seats.

The pilot didn’t say anything. His hands were shaking. The shuttle had minimal point defense lasers and no offensive weaponry. It was not designed to do what they were about to do, and the only thing protecting the pilot was his CMU’s on combat mode and a helmet. If they got hit he was fucked, but Coop might survive.

“Uh…we’re ready.” The pilot gulped.

“Hey, calm down.” Coop told the man forcefully. There was no way he was going to die because the guy was so nervous he forgot how to fly. “You just get me there and I’ll do the rest.”

The reply was the shuttle dropping out of Argo and jerking as it left the ship’s internal gravity field. That didn’t help the shuttle’s interior. Coop was surprised he didn’t poke a hole through the thin hull.

The asteroid loomed large in front of them. There was some debris floating around it where Argo’s armaments had taken out the energy cannons and anything else that presented a threat to the shuttle. The gunboat was still standing guard as the shuttle shot toward the ball of rock, but there wasn’t much it would really be able to do if they missed a laser. The CPO might be good, but he wasn’t faster than light.

The pilot took evasive action on the approach, and by the time they reached the metal doors of the asteroid’s main hanger bay Coop was a little woozy. The shuttle didn’t have the internal gravity field that the gunboat did. It didn’t have much at all.

“They left the front door open,” the pilot gulped as the tiny shuttle slipped through the massive doors. Argo would have been able to easily get through those doors.

Millimeter wave radar painted the hanger and updated Coop’s STRATNET. It was exactly what they studied before the operation. A central runway ran half a kilometer down the center of the hanger. On either side of it were little cubby holes where you could either park a small ship or stack supplies. All Coop saw was a lot of dead space where a fire team could be sitting waiting to fire a shoulder-launched missile down the shuttle’s throat.

“Drop me off here.” Coop instructed the pilot once they’d passed the giant door.

“I’m supposed to take you to the end.” The pilot’s hands had relaxed, and Coop took that as a bad sign. Things weren’t better now, they were even more dangerous.

“Get me on the fucking ground now!” Coop’s tone did the trick and the pilot put the shuttle in a shallow dive while twisting it around one hundred and eighty degrees.

“Pressurizing.” The pilot’s compartment sealed itself off from Coop’s spot in the rear while all of the air exited. His LACS was environmentally secured, so he didn’t notice the change aside from some changes in the sensor readings. “Good luck.” The skids hit the ground and the rear hatch popped open.

If Coop – or any other soldier – had their way they would have moved with a purpose to the next available cover or concealment. Instead, he had to squeeze his big metal ass out of a small hole. A sniper could have fucked him up good in the critical seconds it took to unass from the shuttle, but thankfully no one punched his ticket.

“I’m in.” His breathing was heavy and his leg was a little sore as he moved from cover to cover clearing those big open sections.

<I could have used some drones.> He’d asked for some of the pencil-sized copters that would expand his awareness while sitting there alone, but was denied. They only had a dozen aboard, and they were saving them until more boots were on the ground.

He’d cleared a quarter of the area before the shuttle reappeared with the rest of the fire team he was leading.

“Where the fuck are you going?” Coop radioed the pilot when the small craft overshot his position. “Get the fuck back here and…”

The LACS HUD went from clear to red as his armor detected the missile launch. It all happened so fast that Coop’s neural network was the only thing fast enough to respond. Thankfully, Coop was paranoid as fuck after seeing the blueprints of the hanger and knowing he was going in alone.

The pilot was just starting to bank when the missile fired from the far side of the space. Coop took a small amount of satisfaction knowing that he’d made the right call in getting dropped off at the end of the runway, because they’d have eaten that missile and there wasn’t anything he could have done about it.

He was able to do something about this one.

The railgun swiveled and put up a wall of lead between the shuttle and missile. The missile exploded about twenty-five meters from the shuttle, which saved it from destruction but still fucked it up a bit. The small craft spun wildly in the air before the pilot got it under control. It was a good thing it spun away from Coop’s position or else he wouldn’t have been able to get a lock on to the rocket-team’s location.

His armor vibrated as an anti-personnel shell rotated into his 125mm tube and the computer calculated the trajectory. Coop took a knee, but kept his Buss and railgun trained in the direction they’d taken fire from. He felt the tremor through his armor, and spike of pain in his leg, as the cannon fired. There wasn’t a lot of height to the hanger bay, so the shell came in on a shallow arc and detonated about head-level. Ceramic bits spewed out in a torrent of death that would turn any human into finely puréed meat, but the missile’s onboard camera took a picture of the scene before detonating. Whoever had fired the missile had hauled ass after trying to sucker punch the marines, so he destroyed a whole lot of nothing.

“We’re clear. They shot and booked it out of here.” Coop hustled over to where the pilot had put down the shuttle.

One of the onboard marine’s status icons was yellow. He’d been smashed around the interior after the explosion and broken a few things. The rest of the team was green though, and they spread out quickly to form a loose perimeter.

<What is it with me and hanger bays?> Coop wondered as he took stock of the situation.

It didn’t take long to figure out the shuttle was down for a minute. A few pieces of shrapnel needed to be pulled from the hull and patched before it could fly again in space. That left him with three total fighters including him. The injured marine could be useful in a pinch, but by the dark stain on the crotch of the pilot’s CMUs, Coop guessed the Fleet guy wasn’t going to be of much use in a firefight.

“We need to clear the rest of this hanger, look for booby traps, and secure the entrances and exits.” Coop gave the order because either Argo was going to pull in, or the shuttle had nine more runs to make, and one good hit was all it would take to turn it into a flaming ball of wreckage.

“You two on me.” Coop took point. “Let’s get it done.”

<The quicker we get it done the quicker the Sergeant can get here and take over.> Coop wasn’t a fan of this taking charge crap.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 147

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Argo, System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Anything yet, XO?” Ben was sitting in his command chair anxiously tapping his fingers against the armrest.

Everyone else on the bridge was busy at work analyzing the data sent in by the drones, or running Argo. Currently, the gunboat was decelerating toward the planet it was going to orbit around while the drones scanned the locations.

Coop watched all through the helmet sensors in his LACS. He was standing guard with another PVT. It was standard operating procedure to have a marine guard stationed at the hatch to the bridge when in enemy territory or even unknown space. Some skippers had the marines on guard twenty-four-seven no matter where they were. Thankfully, Ben didn’t have that big of a stick up his ass, but he’d still requested Coop to be on guard detail once the ship starting heading into the system after transition.

<Speaking of asses.> Coop adjusted his view and magnified. The XO was currently bending over something and… <Jackpot.>

The way the other PVT chuckled showed that he was enjoying the same sight. There really wasn’t much else to do on a small gunboat out in the middle of nowhere. VR porn only got you so far.

“Contact.” The XO’s curt alert dramatically changed the atmosphere on the bridge. A ripple of tension rolled outward from her.

Coop couldn’t blame them. They’d fought pirates once before and won the traditional battle, but they’d lost the war. They lost their captain, several marines, and then got benched for months because of it. It was in every spacers’ best interest to do well on this mission or their negative evaluation reports would follow them through the rest of their careers.

“What do you have?” Ben looked cool and collected – like a leader was supposed to – but Coop saw the change. The most telltale sign was that he’d stopped drumming his fingers annoyingly against the seat.

“I’ve got faint radiation readings coming from location alpha.” She made a swiping motion and the information traveled to the skipper’s display. “They’re still falling, but you can see there is an undertone of EM and even some basic radio waves.”

Coop zoomed in on the data from his post. He didn’t understand most of it, but there was a chart with numbers and shit on it. All the HI trooper needed to know was that there was a line with a zero. If there was no one home then the various signals Argo’s scanners were set to detect would come back with jack squat. Instead, the lines were elevated and fluctuating. Like the XO said, they were going down, but Coop knew what that meant.

The same thing happened back in the PHA. The Rats didn’t need any fancy equipment to pass the word that the cops were coming to do a welfare and contraband check. Lockouts passed the word when they saw the po-po blocks away and everyone sprang into action. Even the geriatric old bastards did their part. The black market goods sold in plain view in the lobby were packed away into secret compartments throughout the tower. That’s what Coop was seeing here. He was seeing the local black market trying to shut itself down real quick when they knew the cops were coming.

<Huh.> Coop had trouble thinking of himself as a sort-of-cop, but as long as he didn’t get the short end of the stick he really didn’t give a shit. He might even be able to use this to his advantage.

The various gangs and even tower complexes sometimes had a few cops on the payroll. As Rats they didn’t have much, but they could scrounge up a few bucks, some recreational narcotics, or even a fine woman for the cops to look the other way on something that would otherwise get a Rat busted. That was the life Hailey had been looking at before Coop took her as his own.

<Fuck…Hailey. I wonder how she’s doing.> It had been the first time Coop thought about his old fuckbuddy in a long time. It felt like another life, because it was another life.

Anything that happened before Basic belonged to weak-ass Coop’s life. Now, he was HI trooper Coop, the biggest baddest motherfucker in this system.

He shook his head and cleared it of the vision of the amber-eyed girl from his past and focused on the present. Being the cop in this situation might be a good thing after all.

“They’re trying to power down, but they’ll fire back up the moment they know we’re onto them.” The XO was still clicking away at her terminal. “I suggest we set this course.” A dotted line appeared in the holo-tank in front of the Skipper.

“Good thinking.” Ben mused for a second, but made a few tweaks. “We’ll use the planet to block our signature while we power up for a slingshot maneuver. We’ll use the planet’s gravity to cover the ground between it and the asteroid in half the time.”

Half the time still constituted seventy-three minutes, but that was the nature of space. It was really fucking big.

“When we’re within a light minute I want an active scan of that rock. Let’s give the marines something to work with.”

<Thank you.> No soldier liked to go into an op blind like this, and some planning was better than no planning at all.

What they did know off the bat was what was in the files when the Commonwealth was hollowing out the big rock to begin with. The design was pretty simple. There was a bay in the front that acted as a buffer to space and a place to dock supply ships when they came in the grab the stored supplies. Behind that was a central cavern with the bulk of the supplies. Smaller nooks and crannies would be drilled for more sensitive items like weapons and ammo, and secured according to regulations. A vault door really wouldn’t do much to stop a determined thief, but it would at least slow them down.

This particular asteroid was a hair over two kilometers long and three quarters of a kilometer wide. It fell somewhere in between a weirdly shaped battleship or assault carrier. Having been on the latter, Coop knew that meant there was a lot of empty space in there for people to be hiding shit that went boom.

<All the more reason to have good intel when we head in.>

The minutes droned on and on as Argo executed the slingshot around the planet. Coop felt the floor rumbled a little when the little gunboat hit the appropriate coordinates and the engines went to a hundred percent thrust. The compensators handled it perfectly and they didn’t get liquefied as they used the planet’s gravity to increase their speed and fling them toward their ultimate target.

About five minutes after exiting the planet’s dark side on their new course they saw the pirates respond.

“They’re coming back online.” The XO informed as the sensors started to pick up a lot more activity. “Targeting radar is painting us!”

The crew had been at battlestations since they initiated the slingshot, but Ben still hit the button and red lights started to flash along with a claxon’s wail.

“Defensive measures only, guns.” Ben ordered.

“Aye, Sir. Playing defense only.” The older CPO at the weapons consul acknowledged.

“Missile launch! I’m reading two bogeys coming at us at zero-one-zero and three-five-zero. They’re…”

Coop felt his sphincter tighten when the CPO didn’t say anything for a moment.

“They’re…barely holding together.” The senior NCO tried hard not to laugh. “I could knock these out of space with a wet fart.”

“See to it, Chief.” Ben was smiling as Argo continued on its course.

That smile disappeared when both missiles prematurely detonated twenty-thousand kilometers away.

“Radiological alarm!” A new blaring rang through the ship. “ES armor engaged.”

“Idiots.” Ben shook his head as Argo continued on its heading. “Who the hell uses thermonuclear warheads anymore?”

Coop had a guess. No one used thermonuclear anymore because they were dirty, and a nuclear blast didn’t pack as much punch in space as it did on a planet. No one used them on planets anymore because of the dirty part. They had antimatter bombs now. They were just as powerful if not more, and there was none of the follow-on cleanup.

<But that’s what those assholes are counting on. They want to make a mess.> Coop watched through his sensors as Argo monitored to two new suns that were burning brightly in space before them.

The shockwave of the two blasts ratted Argo for a second, but they powered through it. There hadn’t been any chance that was going to hurt the gunboat. The Commonwealth built them sturdy.

As expected, sensor readings coming from the asteroid were shit until all the radiological material from the blast dispersed into space, and then Coop’s assumption became reality.

“Jailbreak!” The XO frowned at her terminal as the information updated on the holo-tank.

The holo-tank cleared and Argo started picking up a dozen ships hauling ass away from the asteroid. Coop couldn’t help but be impressed. The tactics might be on a bigger scale, but he’d seen this done before. When Rats in the PHA didn’t get word early enough of a raid, or they couldn’t bride the cops, they initiated a distraction. Usually it was something small like a fire, but full on riots had started as a result of a housing block not wanting to get their shit searched.

<Half a galaxy away and nothing changes.> Coop couldn’t help but respect the people on that rock he was going to kill, but more importantly, he couldn’t help but give himself a pat on the back. He’d seen this coming when the professional spacers hadn’t.

“Damn.” Ben had a sour look on his face, but everyone knew there was nothing they could do.

Dozens of ships were bugging out in different directions. There was no way Argo could catch more than one or two of them with her superior engines. Ben had to make a choice, and Coop thought it was a pretty easy one.

“Re-direct the drones and get as much data as you can on those ships. I want emission signatures, engine IDs, and profiles. If you can give me a visual of the ship I want a Polaroid picture of the hull number stamped into the stern. I want the Fleet to be able to track these guys down in the next few weeks.”

“Yes, Sir!” The crew could tell their captain was irritated.

Seventy minutes became an hour and then forty-five minutes. As the time wore down and the remnants of the distraction faded from their sensors Argo got a much better read on the station.

“I’m reading multiple generator sources with conduits to the surface. It could be environmental or weaponry.”

“Institute minimum evasive actions. What is our new ETA?” Ben made a decision.

“Sixty-one minutes.” The XO pushed several buttons, but Coop didn’t feel any change in the ship.

“How long until we’re close enough to do a scan for lifeforms?”

“Forty minutes, Sir.”

Ben rubbed his chin as he evaluated the data. “Sergeant O’Neil, I need a deployment plan for your people.” He called out to one of the few marines on the bridge. “Cooper, get in here.”

“Moving, Sir.” Coop held back his smile. He was starting to like being in the loop while all the other grunts sat around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for orders.

The holo-tank split in two and a 3-D picture of the asteroid popped into existence complete with all the data they had on it. Coop thought it looked like a giant bean. Stuff was highlighted on the surface, but his focus was on the front door.

“These things are designed to only have one way in and one way out.” The ship’s marine detachment SGT poured over the information. “The only way in is through the front.”

“We could make another way.” Coop’s mouth got the best of him.

Both the SGT and Ben turned to look at him.

“What I mean is…”

“No, I get your meaning, Cooper.” The SGT gave him an ‘it’s ok’ look. “We could make a hole in the asteroid for a second entry point, but that involves a lot of risk to Argo and the asteroid. We aren’t a battleship that can take a lot of hits. We’re designed to be fast and avoid getting hit, so sitting and firing at a target to make a hole isn’t what we were built for. Plus, if we go too far we could crack the asteroid in half and kill everyone, or not go far enough, and our team would be trapped and useless on the surface. Do you want to do a two-klick hike on the surface of an asteroid during a battle?”

“No, Sergeant,” Coop replied just as they felt the ship shudder.

“Enemy has engaged.” The CPO informed. “They’ve got three energy cannons that were camouflaged on the surface in the two-hundred-terawatt range, but their fire control sucks. I’ll take them out when we get closer and have a better firing solution.”

The CPO spoke casually as Argo flew into a storm of energy blasts that would erase Coop from existence like he’d never even been there in the first place. <I hate this spacer shit.> He wanted to be able to see bullets coming his way and make his own decisions on how he lived or died.

“The hanger bay it is.” Ben nodded and the SGT concurred.

<Who cares if we crack the rock in half? They’re just pirates we’re going to kill anyway,> was Coop’s thought on the topic, but people above his pay grade had already made a decision. It was his job to do or die, and he did not intend on dying on some worthless rock in the middle of nowhere. He was going to send those poor pirate bastards to meet the reaper.

“Go lock and load, Cooper. Mission briefing in ten.” The SGT dismissed him, and he quickly obeyed.

He went back to see the armorer. He saw Lee at a corner intersection. She was busy doing engineer shit, but she shot him a smile and a wink. The meaning couldn’t have been clearer. It said come on back to me and I’ll show you one hell of a good time. He intended to do just that.

He knew the drill with the armorer. The gunboat was pretty damn new because there wasn’t even dust on the auto-loader for the LACS. Coop watched as the numbers ticked up as he got a full combat load for the first time in his career. No non-lethal or anti-riot crap. This was a true-blue combat load.

He practically salivated over thousands of 3mm plasma-tipped rounds for his Buss. The bullets would hit with the punch of a heavy weapon and ignite the plasma for a big, satisfying boom that would turn the target into mush. That was on top of a fully loaded 40mm grenade tube with extra rounds in his armored compartments ranging from buckshot to high explosive. Those would finish anything the plasma rounds couldn’t. He had his eight hypervelocity missiles in the launcher and a railgun fully packed with fifteen thousand rounds. Lastly, he had his 125mm spine-mounted artillery tube. He got his twelve thermobaric, ten kinetic HE penetrators, ten anti-personnel, and five electronic warfare shells, but they refused to give him the one-kiloton antimatter round. Since setting that thing off inside the asteroid would kill everyone and break the big rock into several much smaller rocks, Coop couldn’t really hold it against them. He took another anti-personnel round instead.

By the time the pirate’s asteroid base came within a couple of light-seconds of Argo’s sensors Coop was cocked locked and ready to fuck some shit up, and judging by the data streaming in, the enemy was ready to dance.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 146

Eve Berg

Location: Syracuse, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 A soldier walks into a bar. It sounded like that start of a bad joke that either ended in getting shitfaced or a bar fight. As Eve surveyed the clientele of the drinking establishment she concluded it could go either way. There were a lot of people in the gray CMUs of the Commonwealth. A decent chunk was Fleet, but there was a fair amount of Infantry there as well. On top of that, about a quarter of the room was filled with men and women in the black and gold of the Syracuse Defense Force (SDF).

From what she heard, the SDF was a legit defense force. The institutions mandated by Commonwealth law ran the gauntlet between professional fighting organizations and useless groups of bodies that ate up resources. The Commonwealth by nature didn’t butt into individual systems a lot, but there were some points they were iron clad about. Military matters were one of them. A system needed to maintain its PDCs and orbital fortresses. The Commonwealth usually paid to construct them, and in some systems even manned them, but the Fleet and Infantry only had so many bodies to throw around between hundreds of systems. It preferred to muster its strength at staging points like Mars, Asgard System, Wolvesbain, and a few others rather than deploy piecemeal across the galaxy. A lot of systems were tasked to defend themselves with a small garrison of regular troops to help train when they weren’t conducting other mission essential tasks.

Syracuse was a major industrial system for the Commonwealth. It was a junction system, and had incalculable raw materials to be mined. On top of all of that it was a sector capitol which didn’t amount to much except for an increase in funds. Because of its importance, the Infantry kept a brigade and a half permanently stationed on Syracuse, manned half of the two-dozen PDCs, and routinely had a decent amount of warships in orbit. Even with that, the brunt of the system defense fell to the SDF. They had squadrons of capitol ships, several divisions-worth of trained soldiers, and their gear was nearly up-to-date. They were a fine fighting force by any measure, but having the entire might of the Commonwealth fleet and its attached Infantry in their system was making them a little uneasy…and testy. They were proud of their little army and navy, and they didn’t like being looked down on by anyone.

It was a given that when one proud fighting group met another proud fighting group there was bound to be some tension, and the quicker Third Fleet got on its way the better.

Those men and women in black and gold stuck to themselves in the back of the room while the rowdier Commonwealth soldiers and spacers bordered on loud and obnoxious. A woman with Eve’s looks and build stepping into the mix didn’t help. It was an endless stream of catcalls as she made her way to where her party was waiting for her.

GYSGT Cunningham was sitting next to a pretty woman eve didn’t know. From the way she uneasily looked around her, Eve guessed she wasn’t military. <A date?>

On the other side of the GYSGT was another familiar face. SGM Queen had a disappointed frown on his face. If Eve had to guess, he’d learned the GYSGT batted for the opposite team when she showed up with her lady friend tonight. That ended any campaigns he might have been planning.

“Gunney, Sergeant Major,” Eve ignored the latest crack about her fine ass and took a seat.

“Private…I mean Corporal Berg.” The GYSGT’s smile was just a little too big to be completely sober. She reached across the table and gave Eve a forceful pat on the shoulder right where her new two chevrons were.

Eve could help but wince a little. Sick bay had fixed her up lickety-split, but the new bone material needed time to set. She just couldn’t do any strenuous physical activity for the next twenty-four hours or get in any more fights. The forceful slap just jostled her a little, and got a luahgt out of the GYSGT.

“She handled it like a champ.” The SGM help up his glass to Eve before taking a gulp and raising his hand. “Next round is on me.”

<Shit, free booze. I should get promoted more often.> Eve didn’t ask for anything fancy or imported when the frazzled looking waitress got around to them. Something domestic and cheap was fine with her. The SGM was still an NCO even if he was an order of magnitude higher than her in rank, experience, and pay grade. They didn’t make as much compared to officers.

“So, Gunney, why am I here?” Eve finally broke the silence after a beer.

The Gunney had been giggling and whispering stuff in her date’s ear, something totally un-Gunney-like, but sweet in its own way. Still, this was everyone’s last weekend on this rock before spending the net month in space followed by an undeterminable amount of time fighting for their lives. Some people in this bar might not even make it back. It was only natural for people to want to enjoy themselves. Eve might like the GYSGT and SGM, and didn’t want to serve under many others when the bullets started flying, but she still ahd her own plans for the weekend. That did not include spending a lot of time with senior NCOs.

“You’re on my team, Berg. I asked for you because I trained you and know you can handle yourself.” The GYSGT said matter-of-factly. “I just wanted to let you know the shitstorm we’re going to be stepping into. Babe, could you go grab us another round please?” The GYSGT flashed her a credit chip with a healthy amount of dollars on it. The girl read between the lines and went to the crowded bar so the soldiers could talk.

“The 2511th’s Alpha Company is a good unit. It’s got a solid LT who’s been with the unit for half a decade. It’s got the added benefit of having a person other than its NCOIC being the HI for the unit. That helps my job tremendously. Command and control if difficult enough when I’m also dealing with the company’s indirect fire missions.” Her face grew solemn with some memory before she shook herself. “But even if my company is great, it still doesn’t mean things are going to go smoothly. Mission to seize Alcubierre Launchers is some of the most dangerous missions there are.”

<Well thanks for asking for me personally.> Eve tried not to roll her eyes when she learned she’d been voluntold for something so dangerous.

“The power sources on these things are unimaginable. Kilometers-long generators power the devices that gan slingshot full fleets into FTL. There is also exotic matter everywhere. They have quantum devices to receive instantaneous signals halfway across human-explored space, and those are just a few things. These are literally mankind’s greatest invention and its most valued possession rolled into one. The fight we are going to engage in will be bloody, brutal, and we’ll take a lot of casualties, which is why I’ve got a full five-person Ranger fire team attached to my company.”

<Fan-fucking-tastic.> Eve drank what was left of her beer, which was nowhere near enough after receiving all this intel.

“Because of the shitstorm we’re about to walk into, I just wanted to sit down with you and get your feelings.”

<Did the Gunney just ask me about my feelings?> The shock must have shown on Eve’s face, because it got another laugh out of the NCOs.

“You’re not some boot fresh out of Basic that doesn’t know their fart from a NBC attack,” the GYSGT smiled and leaned back in her seat. “You’re a valued member of my team who’s been in the suck a lot for someone your age, and I want your impression of things. You can even tell me you’re pissed I volunteered you for this. I don’t give a shit if you are, but I won’t hold it against you if you want to rant a little.”

That was when the GYSGT’s date showed up with the beers. Eve grabbed hers before it hit the table and chugged it.

<Out of the frying pan and into the fire.> She set the bottle down when she was done, belched, and then got into it with the Gunney.

The night ended with a bar fight and getting shitfaced, so it seemed those corny bar jokes had a ring of truth to them after all.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Argo, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Attention, prepare for transition in t-minus one minute.”

When the announcement for their transition into System 1861 came over the intercom Coop was taking a dump. Something the cook had whipped up wasn’t sitting well with him. He’d heard a rumor back on Abe that if you were taking a shit during a transition it would clear out your system. He had no idea if it was true or not, but the painful rumbling in his stomach was something he needed to get rid of. This could evolve from a simple scouting mission to a combat operation in a heartbeat and he didn’t want to shit his suit.

He didn’t want to go to sick bay and be that little bitch complaining of a stomach ache, so he was determined to do everything he could before going there. He’d never hear the end of it from the regular grunts, and as HI he was supposed to be the toughest of them all. He wasn’t going to be taken down by some bad soy.

“Hello, is anyone in here?” The voice was female and vaguely familiar. It was LT Briggs, the Argo’s XO.

More than one marine had taken a run at her over the past few days, and she’d professionally rebuffed them all. Coop didn’t even try to go there. Spacer Lee was just about all he could handle. She was a bit of a freak and he loved it. However, not actively chasing the hot officer and letting her see him like this were two totally different things.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Coop tried to act as nonchalantly as possible while sitting on the porcelain throne with a audibly rumbling stomach.

“We’re about to transition…”

“Roger that, Ma’am.”

“Ok,” there was a short pause. “Good luck.”

If Coop was any other self-respecting person he would have been mortified. He was still embarrassed. A hot girl knowing what was happening would always have that effect, but it was bearable.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to think about it much because less than five seconds later everything shifted as Argo dropped out of FTL into System 1861.

“Holy shit!” Coop gripped the railing of the metal stall. He now had proof that the transition shit was legit.

After taking a minute to collect himself, Coop cleaned up and headed toward the bridge. The Argo’s small space didn’t have a lot of room for anyone aside from the bridge crew. Normally, it would have been the marine squad leader. There were a few of those present, but it became clear quickly that the skipper trusted the HI trooper onboard. So, Coop was privy to stuff that a normal PFC wasn’t.

He was still a PFC. The CPL paperwork hadn’t gone through yet, and even if it did, he wouldn’t learn about it until they got back to New Lancashire. That sucked for this mission. If they got into some shit that qualified them for combat pay Coop would get paid at the PFC rate. The War Department was stingy like that.

Coop studied the holo-tank in the center of the bridge as it slowly expanded to a light-minute out from the gunboat. The ES armor was active for transition, but once it became clear there wasn’t an ambush waiting they dropped the shielding to divert more power to the engines.

“XO, how long has it been since the last warship passed through this system?” Ben asked from his command chair in the center of the bridge.

“Eight years, Sir.” The XO was at her own station watching her screens and adjusting sensors to get a better view of the space around them.

“What was the status of the system then?”

“Abandoned and unoccupied, Sir.”

“Prepare to launch drones.” Ben was leaning back in his seat and staring intently at the holo-tank.

Coop found the whole thing boring as hell. That was space combat. Staring at a holo-tank watching icons disappear until you got yourself blown up. Ground combat might be terrifying, but it beat sitting on your ass all day long.

“Drones prepared, Sir.”

“Don’t get them too close to the targets and program them for indirect approaches. We’ll set course for this world.” Ben selected the icon for the third planet in the system. It was too far out to be a goldilocks world, but with a little work it could be terraformed.

More importantly, it sat outside of the interior asteroid belt where two of their three potential targets were located. If there was anything at those two targets, parking Argo in orbit around the planet gave them an excellent tactical position to intercept or outright destroy. In the planet’s current orbit, they’d be lined up perfectly.

Coop took that as a good sign of what was to come.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 144

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Over the last few months, Coop had learned something very important about himself: he would much rather be stationed on a planet than on a ship. In terms of career progressions, it wasn’t the best feeling to have, but he didn’t really give a shit. Being stationed at a base on a planet gave you good chow, real booze, and a good selection of women. Being stationed on a ship meant the same shitty recycled food day after day – no matter how good the cooks were – booze that was distilled in some backdoor engineering compartment, and the only women around were other Infantry or Fleet. In Coop’s personal experience, the risk was greater than the reward when it came to getting into someone else’s CMUs. He’d only managed it once, but it had been one hell of a ride.

When he stepped off the shuttle and onto the Abe’s flight deck he frowned. He was wearing his newly-broken-in LACS V2 armor, so no one could see his face, but he probably would have gotten chewed out for how he was looking at people.

<Let’s get this over with.> He was here for the five grand and to continue to cultivate a relationship that was already paying dividends. It wasn’t a bad idea to have a good officer or two in your corner when he inevitably stepped in some shit. Coop knew himself pretty well by now, and he’d eventually have to call in some favors.

People moved aside as Coop took the passages toward the gunboat bays. The few Infantry guys he passed gave the suit a not-too-friendly frown. That was because it was brand spanking new without any scratches or dents in it. That meant he was either some asshole walking around in HI armor when he didn’t need to, which equaled asshole, or he was lucky enough to get new equipment, which equaled lucky asshole. Either way, the infantry grunts Coop passed weren’t the friendliest bunch. Not that he cared. He had other shit to do.

Argo was docked at the ass end of the carrier back near the engines. She would be the last ship to launch in case of an emergency, and it had that untouched look that showed it hadn’t seen much of anything in the last few months. Argo was bigger than he thought she would be. She seemed squeezed into the bay, but other than that she was a good-looking ship.

A small team was walking around the hull doing a visual inspection when he walked up. One was a fit, cute woman with the platinum stripe of an LT. He headed toward her for obvious reasons, but was cut off by a SGT.

“Private Cooper?”

Coop had checked, and before he left the BN commander hadn’t signed off on his promotion yet.

“Yes, Sergeant.” With a quick sideways glance at the LT he turned his attention on the marine.

“Welcome aboard. I’m Sergeant O’Neil, the ship’s contingent NCOIC. We’ve got a couple of other squads aboard for the mission so it’s going to be tight quarters. Head in and stow your gear. You’re the only HI we have, so the bunk by the charging rack is all yours. We’re having a briefing at 1100, and then the skipper will address everyone at 1300.”

“Roger that.” Coop had the SGT opened up in a small side window while the majority of the HUD was showing what his rear sensors were seeing.

The LT was still leading the inspection team, and she was bending down to check something low. <Now that’s an ass.> It seemed Coop’s morning quickie with Sandy hadn’t quite satisfied him. <What is it with hot LTs?>

Coop started moving after that because the SGT had stopped talking and moved away. It looked downright strange for him to just be standing there in the bay by himself, so he moved toward the outer hatch. He took a left when he entered the gunboat. There was just enough clearance for him in his armor, but when he moved from section to section he had to duck down. Being HI on this tiny ship was going to be a bit of a pain in the ass. The bright side was that he had a little more room than the other grunts. His bunk next to the charging rack was bigger, and had about a quarter-meter extra space for him to plop his shit in. From the looks the lounging PVTs gave him, they’d hoped no HI was going to show up, and they’d be able to grab the bunk later.

Coop stowed the LACS in the charger and did a proper diagnostic as he shut down. It was still a new suit and he wanted to catch any bugs if he could. He hadn’t been in the armor long enough to trust it completely, but he was still glad he wasn’t in a V1 antiquated piece of shit.

With nothing left to do until 1100 he decided to tour the ship. It was small enough that he was probably going to be able to get through all of it in half an hour. The grunt country was pretty standard. There were a few VR spots to do training – enough for a squad – but not enough for the two dozen guys he’d seen camping out on the makeshift cots. There was a common area next to the bunks with a holo-screen and some pre-recorded programs on the system, but that was pretty standard on a warship. A few of the other infantrymen were sitting around the holo watching some sort of comedy. Forward of the grunt country was Fleet territory and the bridge. He didn’t want to go there quite yet, so he headed to the stern where engineering and the engines were located.

Coop had learned there was nothing quite like a good mechanic, and being friends with them, especially on a ship, was always a good idea. They usually produced the moonshine that ship-board poker games used as currency if the people were short on cash. He didn’t have to go far to find a group of marines surrounding one engineer.

There were three of them – all sporting PVT or PFC ranking – and they circled the lone engineer on three sides. Coop could see why. She was pretty hot, Asian – which equaled exotic – and had her CMUs pulled down to her waist. She had on a sports bra of some sort, and was covered in grease and other mechanical fluids, but it was still bare skin and perky breasts. The marines were like moths to the flame.

“Oh yeah,” she replied to a question. She was leaning casually against a bulkhead, so nothing had gone over any lines, but she was prepared if they did. She had a large wrench in her hand that was just as capable of breaking skulls as fixing machinery.

“You better believe it.” The marine was grinning like he’d just scored a game winning basket.

“I am a trust-but-verify kind of girl, so let me see it.”

“What?” The young marine was clearly surprised at her comment.

“Yeah.” She continued to smile. “You said you’ve got a big snake in your pants, so let me see it.”

“Here?”

“Yeah,” she frowned. “Are you scared?”

Coop would have just whipped it out, but he didn’t have much shame. These kids clearly had some self-respect left.

“Hey.” Coop cut into the conversation.

He only had PFC rank on his shoulder, but he was at least half a meter taller and thicker than the biggest marine present.

“Hey,” they called back tentatively.

“I guess we’re meeting up at 1100 but the Sergeant is going to do a surprise inspection before then.”

“How do you know?” They were understandingly suspicious of the new HI trooper trying to talk them away from an exotic engineer who’d just admitted she wanted a guy to whip his dick out.

Coop tapped his ear and smiled. “I’ve got better hearing than you. I’d hurry up if I were you. He’s coming by soon.”

He didn’t know how long the other marines had been on the ship, but apparently it was enough time to have made a mess. They hurried off with a sense of urgency, and left coop along with the half-dressed engineer.

“So,” Coop smiled and mirrored her casual lean against the bulkhead. “I’m Coop. I like your look.”

“Really,” she smiled, but still held the wrench in her hand. “That’s your best line.”

“Not a line, just the truth,” Coop kept up the smile. He’d played this game before. “It’s nice to meet you…”

This was the test to see if it went any further or if she blew him off.

“Spacer Aiko Lee, I’m the engineering apprentice, and you, Coop, are a very big boy.”

“I’m the heavy infantry trooper assigned for this mission.” Coop smiled confidently.

“Are you proportional?”

“Want to see?” Things were on the very edge of getting hot and heavy. Coop might even like the next few days on the ship.

“Cooper! Glad you made it.”

<Oh come on! You’ve got to be shitting me.> Coop kept the irritation off his face as he turned to face the familiar voice.

“Thank you, Sir. I was properly motivated.” Coop braced to attention as Ben Gold entered the corridor.

“Lee,” the LCDR turned to the engineer. “Has that stabilizer been double checked yet?” Unlike every other guy so far, his eyes didn’t gravitate toward her partially-bare upper body.

“On it, Sir.” Her face was serious again.

“Re-read 670-1 while you’re at it.” The LCDR quoted the military dress regulation as a subtle way of not condoning her appearance.

The look Lee shot Coop as she left said that they weren’t finished here, and he took that as a good sign as he followed the LCDR.

“I double checked your readiness status as of five minutes ago and you’re all green.” Ben smiled, but didn’t ask for details. The less he knew the better.

Ben led the way up to the forward portions of the ship. He showed Coop the Fleet spaces, the bridge, and they ended up in the skipper’s office.

“This is for you.”

There was a ding on Coop’s PAD and it revealed a new deposit into his bank account.

“Don’t worry about it being red-flagged. My financial people know the financial security regulations better than anyone. Those are all coming from legitimate sources that are within war department guidance.”

True enough, Coop checked the deposit and it came from a casino. Gambling was a common past-time of the soldier, and as long as it wasn’t done on duty it was ok. Even if it happened on duty, a blind eye was likely going to be turned; especially if it was a friendly game between soldiers.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Hopefully we won’t have any problems during our mission, but if we do that is why you’re here. Our armory is fully stocked with everything you armor will need. You’ll report to SGT O’Neil since I have you slotted as part of the ship’s marine contingent, and he’s been instructed to ensure you are good to go. Do you have any questions for me before we get started with this mission?”

Coop knew why the LCDR wanted him in here. Coop had literally saved the guy’s ass, and despite his brief dip into the world of a ground-pounder, Ben Gold was still a pretty-boy, rich-kid, Fleet jockey. He wanted to feel safe, and if Coop was the way he was going to do that then the HI trooper was cool with it. He had five-thousand reasons to be happy.

“No, Sir. I’m good.”

“Excellent. Report back to SGT O’Neil. You’ve got a briefing coming up soon, and I’ll address everyone else before we hit Alcubierre.”

Coop stood and gave the LCDR a sharp salute before doing an about face and heading back to grunt country. The guy was paying him good money. The least he could do was show him respect. Plus, if this went well, there would be other opportunities for extra income while they were stationed in the same AO.

Coop’s good mood took a bit of a hit while he sat through the SGT’s briefing. They were headed to a system in the middle of nowhere to clear some half-finished asteroid storage areas of possible illegal activity. It all smelled a little too much like what happened back at Cobalt. Even worse, they still had no idea how the pirates had gotten those modern weapons. That shit wasn’t supposed to happen, and Coop didn’t want to walk into a clusterfuck a second time.

<At least this time I’ll have a proper load.> Part of the brief was a heads-up on their supply situation. No environmentally-friendly rounds this time. This wasn’t some corporate run station they had to treat with kid gloves. They were going in hot. Everyone there was a hostile, and Coop was looking forward to some real 3mm boom-boom this time.

Despite the uneasy feeling in his gut, there wasn’t anything else for Coop to complain about as Argo slid out of Abe and headed for the Alcubierre Launcher. It was a quick couple of days’ work for a big paycheck, and now he had Lee to look forward to. When he had a free moment he’d find the engineering apprentice and play “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 142

Benjamin Gold

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “No. Absolutely not, Sir.”

Ben sat in front of Charlie Company Commander Lieutenant Jacobi Wentworth and tried not to let his frustration show.

“Please, Lieutenant, just let me ask him.”

“Lieutenant Commander, it’s not a question of whether Private Cooper wants to come on your mission. It’s a question of his ability.” The Infantry LT’s tone was frosty. Ben might outrank her, but she knew he was in her wheelhouse.

“If I could just…”

“Sir, respectfully…” The next words out of the LT’s mouth were unlikely to be respectful; otherwise she wouldn’t start out a sentence like that. “…I don’t know why you want Private Cooper, but you can’t have him. Not only do we have training scheduled over the next month that he needs to attend, but he is also yellow on medical. Even if he wanted to, and I agreed to it, he still wouldn’t be able to go. Plus,” now her eyes matched the frostiness of her tone, “I’ve been waiting over eighteen months to get the HI compliment for my company to finally be one-hundred-percent. I’m not going to let that slip through my fingers because you want an extra layer of defense on whatever your mission is.”

Ben sighed and leaned back in the chair. He wanted Cooper for this mission because aside from SGT O’Neil, Cooper was the only person he had complete trust in. That was trust born in blood and sweat. Once you carried another man across a space station while simultaneously killing the enemy, you formed a bond. Ben had six confirmed kills from that mission and almost bought the farm at least a dozen times. Stats like that changed a man. Most importantly, it made him want what he wanted if he was going to go back into that type of situation again.

If he was being honest with himself, he didn’t feel completely safe without HI Trooper Cooper at his side.

The question was how to get what he wanted, and the answer to that question was the LT sitting in front of him.

“Let’s cut the bullshit,” Ben skipped any thinly veiled formality between them. “What is it going to take for you to sign off on it?”

“Sir, it doesn’t…”

“Don’t concern youself with the medical issue,” he cut her off. “I want to know what you want to sign him over to me for five days, a week tops?” If Ben knew one thing about people, it was that they always wanted something. His father had taught him that, and the LT was no different.

He’d made sure to read up on the LT before meeting up with her. Jacobi Wentworth was a bit of an oddity. She was a fourth generation East Newfoundlander. The system was about as far from the Eastern Block as you could get, so there wasn’t much of a military presence. They had a small system defense force – no more than a handful of cruisers for commerce protection – but Fleet units only passed through in transit to more strategic locations.

The LT came from a standard middle-class family. Father was a senior NCO in the defense force before retiring after thirty years and moving into teaching. Her mother was a medical administrator. There was nothing in the LT’s history that explained why she would go off and join the Infantry, aside from adventure or a desire to prove herself.

Judging by a glance at the chest of her CMU’s, Ben was betting on the latter. The majority of the ribbons were standard for an Infantry officer with six years of service. It didn’t escape his notice that she’d been serving longer than him, but he outranked her. He doubted she’d missed that either.

In that time, she’d achieved a Basic Combat Drop Badge. The silver badge was in a place of prominence above everything else. Since they were in peacetime up until recently, most of those drops had been police actions. Four had been small riots, but one was a legitimate armed conflict against the New Caliphate. The skirmish between the New Caliphate and Maccabbee Alliance had drawn Commonwealth attention. The two independent states were in a constant state of tension, and things had boiled over. The LT had been part of the force sent to restore peace, and she’d received a Purple Heart for her troubles.

All of that meant that the LT had every intention of being a career Infantry officer. She was always looking for the next challenge, something to better herself and her soldiers, and that was something Ben could help with.

The LT gave Ben a piercing look for a few seconds before leaning back in her own chair. “This is stuff you would agree to give me even if I can do nothing about the medical status.”

Ben was taking a risk here, but there was no reward without a little risk. “Yes,” he answered.

She jumped on him after his answer. “I want a week of spaceborne training: EVA ops, ship assault, the whole nine yards. I want to have the only qualified company in my battalion ready for spaceborne action.”

Ben expected something like this. Skippers of warships didn’t like to spend a lot of time accommodating the marines’ training because they had their own mandatory assignments to complete. There was always too much crap on a skipper’s plate, and even after delegating a lot of that, the last thing he wanted was marines running all around the outside hull of his ship playing war.

Thankfully, it was also something Ben could oblige. Argo hadn’t been doing anything but sitting around for the last three months, so he was all caught up on his paperwork and crew qualifications. Allowing the cross-training with the marines might actually be a good mark on his record. ‘Extends sphere of influence outside chain of command’ was a bullet point on the OER after all.

“Deal.” Ben extended his hand and the LT took it.

“Follow me.” The LT wasn’t willing to take his word for it. Together, they marched down the hall to the Battalion operations NCO’s office.

The MSG was more than a little surprised to be pushing through agreed upon spaceborne qualification training between Ben and the LT, but he didn’t question it. He put it on the schedule and had the Battalion Commander’s signature within the hour. A minute later, the LT signed the temporary duty paperwork. All Ben had to do was get Cooper’s medical status to green and he’d have his HI trooper.

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Coop was enjoying his night off. He needed to. With qualifications and an FTX coming up he didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to get off base and unwind. It all depended how much of a Hard ass GYSGT Weitz was if his future held spending the majority of time sleeping in a charging rack or not. Coop didn’t want to think about that. He needed to live in the moment, and that moment currently involved some farmer’s daughter with daddy issues grinding her almost-bare ass against his crotch.

The lighting was dim in his favorite strip club for purely disreputable reasons. Coop liked the place because the security was lazy and the girls were down for just about anything. Life on a new colony could be tough for some, and these establishments gave those struggling women a way to make easy cash.

“So the new LT is hot?” Mike asked. His chair was facing the opposite direction, because looking at his friend while sporting a woody was just weird.

“Smoking.” Coop supplied the correct adjective. “Easily a nine, maybe even a ten.”

“Why not just give her a ten?” Mike asked as his own stripper strutted her stuff around his massive frame.

“You got to be a freak in the sack if you want a ten in my book.” They both laughed and chugged the last of their beer. It was cheap shit that tasted like piss-water, but it was cheap.

The song came to the end and the stripper gave him one last side to side rub of her ass before rising seductively to her feet. Her eyes lingered on Coop for a moment, and when he didn’t move to deposit more money in her account she started walking away.

“Oh, come on, Destiny!” he called after her, but she didn’t look back. “Could you at least bring me a beer?”

That earned him the finger from Destiny – which he tried not to read into the irony of – and another laugh from Mike.

“So, you and Harper?” Coop wasn’t willing to go down without a fight.

“No, we’re done.” There was a hint of sadness in Mike’s voice, but he swallowed it along with a gulp of beer. Unlike Coop, he paid for another song. “I haven’t heard from her in two months. I expected to come back from the last op with at least a message waiting in my inbox, but there was nothing.”

“The Unwritten Rule.” Coop nodded his head and just sat awkwardly in his chair without booze or woman to keep him company.

The unwritten rule in the military was no contact after an agreed upon amount of time was as surefire sign that things were over. With travel times being what they were, it could take a while to get word from place to place, but two months was more than enough time to get an e-mail from New Lancashire to Luna and back at least a few times. There were a couple of explanations for the absence. Harper might be under some type of quarantine from an infectious nanite bioweapon outbreak, she could have died in some tragic training accident, but more than likely she was just polishing some other guy’s nob now. Probably a doctor knowing how determined she was to have nice things.

“Damn,” Mike sighed. “She gave one hell of a blowjob.”

Coop laughed.

“You want a blowjob?” asked the stripper. “That’s going to be two-fifty and I need your medical clearance. I don’t want rotten dick in my throat.”

“Deal.” Mike hopped up so fast he nearly bowled over the woman. “See ya, Coop.”

“If you can afford to throat-bang her you can afford to buy me a drink!” Coop called after his friend, but only succeeded in getting the finger from him and the stripper.

Three months of recovery had taken its toll on Coop’s bank account. You couldn’t spend a lot of money when you were busy doing shit on a warship. If you met the right group of people you might be able to set up some friendly gambling games, but not much more than that. On the contrary, it was amazing how fast cash flew out the door when you were busy sitting around on your ass all day long. Coop only had enough for one more beer. The bright side was that he was getting paid on Friday, so he’d be able to do more than buy a few dances next time he visited.

“Allow me.” The last person Coop ever expected to see in this joint took a seat and ordered top-shelf bottle service.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold?” The half-chub left over from Coop’s last dance vanished. “I didn’t think officers were allowed to even come in here.”

“Sure we’re allowed, but not advised.” Gold was dressed in civvies so it wasn’t immediately recognized that he was a Fleet officer. “I’m off duty, Cooper, so please just call me Ben.”

“I’m going to stick with sir, Sir.” Coop’s spidey-senses were tingling. This felt like a trap of some sort. “What can I do for you?” He proceeded with caution.

“I’ve got a proposition for you.” Ben turned around Mike’s vacated chair, accepted the drinks, but waved off the squads-worth of strippers that gravitated toward his expensive clothing. “I want you to come on a mission with me.”

Coop let out a sigh of relief. He had an easy out.” Sorry, Sir.” He patted his leg. “I’m still yellow. I can’t do anything until I’m cleared, and then you’d have to get my LT to sign off on it. Good luck with…”

“Already done.” Ben’s email arrived on Coop’s PAD with a ping. “Your LT has agreed to temporarily assign you to me for the next week. After that, you will return to Charlie Company.”

“That’s nice of her,” Coop read over the orders but that didn’t stop the confusion. “It still doesn’t fix my medical readiness.”

“That I’m leaving up to you.”

Another ping rang out from Coop’s PAD. It was an alert from his bank account. His balance had just jumped from pennies to over a grand.

“A thousand now, and five more when you get your medical status up to green.” Ben sounded like he was talking about the weather and not something that was clearly against regulations.

<Is it?> Coop couldn’t help but think he’d never read about something like this being against the UCMJ, but then again, Coop hadn’t put much stock in military law since the day he joined up.

“Two questions. First, why me?” Coop critiqued the officer.

“I want you because I know you can handle yourself if things go sideways. You’ve done it for me before, and this time I’m offering even more incentive.”

<He’s got a point.> Coop scratched his chin. He really needed cash.

“Ok, but how am I supposed to do it?” That was the real question.

“That’s for you to find out, Private, and you’ve got five thousand reasons to figure it out in the next six hours. You need to report to Argo at 0900.” Ben smiled, got to his feet , and slid the bottle of Earth-made whiskey to Coop. “That’s on me. Consider it a bonus. You’re a resourceful man, Cooper. I have faith in you.”

The LCDR walked away and Mike returned with a smile on his face. “Who was that?”

Coop didn’t say anything. His mind was running the possibilities and coming up with jackshit. <How can I do it…how can I do it…how can I do it?> He took a few swigs from the bottle hoping for some liquid genius.

Surprisingly enough, it worked.

“Here.” The bottle was half empty, and he was more than a little buzzed when he tossed it to Mike.

“Shit, is this…?” Mike never got the question out before Coop was at the door and pushing his way into the cool night.

He used his PAD to do a quick search, used a little technological trickery he’d learned in the PHA and adapted to his current situation, and headed off at a stumbling run toward his destination.

The small set of apartments wasn’t that far from the hospital. It made sense. It was the perfect place for an E5 – who was allowed to live off base – to live. Coop found the door, composed himself, and knocked with a sense of urgency that didn’t come across as too stalkerish.

Sandy answered the door in a nightgown and a sleepy look on her face. A face that lit up but looked a little confused at the sight of him.

“Coop?”

“No, Sandy. I’ve got to say this.” He took a deep breath. “You’ve meant everything to me over the last three months. You put me back together, made me a man again. I can’t ever thank you enough for that, but I also can’t stop how I feel. I can’t describe it,” he put a hand over his chest, “but I know there is something here. I’m not sure if…”

Sandy cut him off by grabbing him by the shirt, pulling him inside, and plastering her lips to his. She had to jump up and practically climb up his chest to do it, but she did it, and that was a good sign. From there it was just a matter of finding the bedroom and stamina.

<And that’s how you do it!> Coop thought a few hours later when Sandy was in a sex coma, and he was able to access her PAD.

All it took was a few clicks and swipes and Coop went from yellow to green on his medical readiness report, and because he was a gentleman he stuck around for a morning quickie before they both needed to report in. She went to the hospital, and he went to the armory. He was cutting it close, but he would be able to make it up to Abe and Argo by 0900, and he had one hell of a sendoff.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 139

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Almost there…almost there.” Coop was breathing heavily. Not quite gasping for breath, but he was definitely out of practice.

“Give it to me, Cooper.” A good-looking woman looked him intensely in the eyes.

“You know I love it when you talk dirty,” Coop smiled and focused on the task at hand.

He was almost there. He was so close he could feel the satisfaction building. <I’ll show her.>

With the last of his energy, Coop threw his foot forward and planted it at the end of the course. “Yeah!” He looked at his physical therapy specialist, who had a matching smile on her face. “Suck on that.” He made a vulgar gesture with his hands toward his crotch. “One hundred meters, in LACS armor, no power. You can cash that and take it to the bank.”

“Settle down, Cooper.” She made placating gestures but couldn’t stop smiling. “You’ve finally met the standard. Your medical condition will be updated to yellow. You’re still on limited duty until you regain full strength in your leg, but you’ll be able to start training in armor again for small durations of time. We’ll get the ball rolling and let the S1 know you’re ready to get reassigned.”

That was music to Coop’s ears. Despite what the doctors on Breckinridge had said, there was not a new leg waiting for him when he got back to New Lancashire. They had his DNA on file, but with the limited supplies of a newly colonized world, and the enhancements that needed to be done, there was a waiting list for new HI limbs. Coop ended up laid up in bed for a week before undergoing half a dozen surgeries to attach the new appendage.

He would give credit where credit was due. The docs had done a spectacular job. Aside from it being a scrawny chicken leg compared to his other one, it didn’t feel any different. <Why should it?> It was his leg in every facet down to the tinniest molecule.

He thought getting the new leg attached would be the hard part, but like usual he was wrong. Within two weeks of getting back planetside he had a new leg, but it took three months to get where he was now.

Even having two legs again, he had trouble with his balance sometimes. The disproportion of the two was so great that it was hard to get used to, and when he finally did get the handle on it things were changing again. He underwent daily nanite injections to speed up the recovery process, and spent hours in rehab. He’d been assigned his own PT specialist: a cute brunette by the name of Sandy, and he’d spent the last few months trying to get in her pants.

She had expertly dodged his advances so far by citing regulation. She could not ethically treat him and fuck him at the same time, but now the game had changed. Coop had strengthened his leg enough that he’d be out from under that pesky ethical conundrum soon.

His leg still ached. It wasn’t quite up to his other leg’s perfection, but it was a start. Getting back into a proper LACS V2 was also a relief. <Now if I can only get into her, my recovery will be complete.>

He was using his most charming smile on Sandy, and her growing dimples showed it might actually be working.

“What do you say? You, me, a nice meal, a bottle of wine, and thirty to forty-five minutes of some other physical activity? You’re always telling me I need to increase my cardio.”

A blush filled her pale cheeks and Coop was ready to put her in the win column when…

“Coop!” Mike’s booming voice filled the small PT clinic and snapped Sandy out of the trance Coop’s charm had put her in.

“Well…um…I’ve got to go and file the paperwork. I’ll talk to you later, Cooper.” With a shake of her head she walked off.

<God damn son-of-a-bitch!> Coop fumed as he turned to fix Mike with his hate-filled glare.

The big HI trooper – still in his LACS – pretended not to notice he’d cock-blocked his best friend.

“Mike,” Coop returned the greeting through gritted teeth. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m back, and do I have some shit to tell you.”

Coop couldn’t see the man smiling, but he could hear it in his voice.

Things had been pretty much business as usual for the Commonwealth over the last three months. Gold Technology’s Corpies had dealt with the bastards that took Coop’s leg, and that was the end of that. The Blockies hadn’t conducted any new raids in Commonwealth territory because Admiral Nelson was too busy keeping them guessing. Every couple of weeks the vaunted Strike Force would sail for targets unknown and return victorious. They’d gone on four separate missions and accomplished all of them. They were so successful that soldiers were starting to volunteer for the missions, and Mike had been selected for the last one.

“All I’m going to say is asteroid mining station,” Mike sounded particularly proud of himself.

Coop looked down at his sore leg. He’d had enough adventures at asteroid mining stations for his lifetime, but friends were supposed to listen to other friends boast about the shit they’d done, and Mike was Coop’s friend. Even if he wanted to plant his boot in the other man’s ass for the cock-block.

“You can tell me over a pint, but you’re buying,” Coop insisted.

“Fine by me. I got combat pay on my last paycheck.”

Despite Coop’s own unfortunate series of events on Cobalt Mining Station, he didn’t give his pound of flesh for nothing. Apparently, LCDR Gold was grateful to the HI trooper who saved his ass, and wrote him up for his actions during the rescue. Coop had a shiny new Meritorious Service Medal for his heroic actions against pirates and rebel miners whenever he turned his CMU’s to the Dress setting. An MSM was a pretty big deal for a PFC to have, so his military business card was looking pretty good right now.

Even better was the cash. A reward for the rescue of LCDR Gold had been posted by the officer’s rich daddy: a million bucks. Of course, when Coop brought this little fact up to his chain of command Gunney Topper had proceeded to stomp on Coop’s nuts and chew him out.

“A soldier doesn’t need a reward to do his job, Cooper!” The Gunney had stood over Coop as he lay in bed and laid into him in front of the whole post-surgery unit.

Thankfully, Coop had just been transferred out of the 2222nd and into the medical unit until he recovered, so when he replied with a resounding, “Go fuck yourself,” he wasn’t going to get court-martialed. Even better, Gunney Topper wasn’t Coop’s rater for the three months required by regulation, so the stick-up-his-ass gunnery sergeant wouldn’t be putting his dislike for Coop in an official evaluation.

Even though the infantry stomped on collecting the reward, Gold turned out to be a decent guy. He’d coughed up ten grand for Coop as a thank you, and Coop said “you’re welcome” by accepting. Coop still thought the big officer was a moron for getting captured in the first place, but he was a moron who paid his debts. That was the type of moron Coop could stand.

Life was looking up for Coop – aside from the blue balls – that sucked, but everything else was getting back to normal.

He cheated a little as he exited the PT clinic with Mike. He amplified the power a little bit to his recuperating leg, so he didn’t’ have to suffer the two-kilometer walk back to the armory. The clinic itself was one, squat polyplast building among the modular collection of buildings that made up the planets one and only hospital.

Really, there wasn’t much to New Lancashire yet. The planet might be the capitol system of York Sector, but it wasn’t much to look at. The system hadn’t been discovered and settled until ten years ago. In terms of terraforming processes, that was short. Initial scans showed a higher than average amount of ore on the planet, which would make it a good site for future shipyards. It was only eighty percent the size of Earth with 1.01 G – 1% more gravity than the homeworld. That was great from a colonization standpoint. No one had to undergo expensive treatment to simply survive.

Environmentally, it was still a work in progress. Over seventy-five percent of the planet’s surface was land, with quite a few ore-rich mountain ranges crisscrossing the surface. The twenty to twenty-five percent of the surface containing water could be loosely defined as inland seas that had mostly dried up before the Commonwealth arrived. Those seas were in the process of being refilled with water from wrangled comets while the atmosphere was tampered with. Currently, it was a survivable mix of oxygen and nitrogen, but there was a lot of dust in the air, so most people preferred to wear a simple breather and protective eyewear when outdoors.

For HI like Coop and Mike, that meant being in armor most of the time. It was a good workout for Coop in getting back up to one hundred percent.

Only a handful of Commonwealth settlements graced the planet’s surface with a total population around a quarter of a million. The capitol, Town Center – Coop thought it was a shitty name -was situated on the coast of the smallest inland sea, which had the most water when the terraforming process began. It was designed in a grid formation with multi-story buildings in the center for administration, science ventures, corporate interests, and necessary facilities like the hospital. Outward from that section were standard duplexes and single-family homes for the colonists. They were cookie-cutter, spartan designs, and you only got into more customized designs once you reached the outskirts of the city limits. Town Center’s population of a hundred thousand made it the largest on the planet, but a lot of that was devoted toward three things: the project refilling and populating the inland seas with life, the footholds of corporate interests like Gold Technologies, and supporting the growing military infrastructure. The latter held the greatest number of employees, so it wasn’t uncommon to see soldiers moving from the nexus of downtown Town Center to the military base and PDC at the outskirts of the city.

Mike and Coop didn’t draw much attention aside from people advertising their wares on the dust-covered street. There wasn’t much conversation as the two HI troopers took their sweet time getting back to base. Neither was in a hurry. About halfway back Mike finally spoke up.

“Sorry about that. I didn’t think you and Sandy were a thing until I opened my mouth.”

What little anger Coop had left deflated. “Don’t worry. I might still be able to turn it around, but you win some and you lose some.” He shrugged, as a gaggle of civilians parted for the large HI troopers.

A few of the women even looked over their shoulders at the large soldiers.

By the time they reached the base’s gates it was thirty minutes from quitting time. New Lancashire ran on a twenty-three hour day, so naturally the brass decided to keep the schedule the same as on Earth and just take the one hour from the soldiers’ free time.

Coop was going to miss being able to hit up a bar or flirt with the local women, but he was excited to get back to a twenty-four hour ship’s schedule and grab that extra hour of sleep every night. The gate guard scanned the projection of their GICs and waved them through. There were a few groups organizing for the final formation of the day, but other than that nothing looked like it was going on. Because they’d checked in so late, Coop and Mike had no intention of going to the final formation. They had to turn in their LACS for the day before shitting, showering, and grabbing that beer.

“Cooper!” The corporal at the gate called after him. “Report immediately to Charlie Company, 2223rd Headquarters, Building 1258.”

“But…” Coop’s reply fell on deaf ears.

“The 2223rd?” Mike sounded just as shocked as Coop. “That’s a whole different battalion.”

“Makes sense,” Coop shrugged. “They got some new replacements in last month, so they probably filled my old slot with the Quad-Deuce.” Truthfully, Coop wasn’t as bummed about it as Mike seemed to be. Getting out from under Gunney Topper’s shit details was worth the separation. They were still in the same brigade.

The two HI troopers parted ways there. Coop didn’t want to make a poor impression on his new boss because he knew how shitty that could turn out. The base wasn’t big – only a hodgepodge battalions-worth of soldiers from a variety of units were on the planet – so it was easy to find building 1258. A SGT manned the staff duty desk and immediately pointed down the hallway. Coop’s metal boots scuffed up the freshly polished floor as he walked down to a door marked C Co. LT Wentworth. He knocked and waited.

“Enter.” The voice was muffled, but the order came through.

Coop entered, marched up to the desk, assumed the position of attention, and…it was a good thing his LACS hid facial expressions because his jaw dropped. LT Wentworth had raven black hair done up in a bun on the top of her head, sun-kissed skin, full red lips, and intelligent green eyes with just a spark of mischief hidden beneath layers of focus. The CMUs weren’t designed to be form flattering, but even then Coop could tell she kept it tight.

The pause lasted about two seconds longer than appropriate before Coop snapped out of it. “Private First Class Cooper reporting for duty, Ma’am.”

“At ease.” She gave Coop’s blank visor a hard stare that only highlighted her symmetrical cheekbones. “I’ll keep it short and sweet, Private.” She steepled her hands on her desk and looked through the armor and at him. “You’ve been assigned to my company effective immediately. I know your medical status and your first job is to get healthy. You will make all of your medical appointments. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Coop stood a little straighter.

“The company has our quarterly range qualification coming up at the end of the week. You will be present for that. There is nothing in your medical profile that states you can’t stand and shoot. We are also scheduled for field training exercises (FTX) with other parts of the battalion at the end of the month. If you are not medically cleared by then we will work with the medics to ensure you have transportation for your appointments. Those are the highlights on the training calendar for the next four weeks. After that, we’re to be ready for any operations battalion wants to assign to us.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Coop was too busy looking into those eyes to think of anything else.

“I’m going to be candid with you, Private.” She crossed her arms across her chest and leaned back slightly. “I hear one of two things about you. I either hear that you’re a skirt-chasing ass, or that you’re a first class soldier who threw himself in the line of fire to save lives and complete the mission. I don’t know which is true, and I don’t much care what you did in the past. What is important to me is what you do while you are with my company. You will follow the standards set by this battalion, obey the orders of those appointed over you, and accomplish the missions I set. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good.” She gave him one last appraising look. “I’m going to turn you over to the HI NCOIC. You will coordinate with him as well as myself and Gunney Weitz depending on the situation.” She checked her watch. “Staff Sergeant.”

A door in the corner of the office opened and a large, familiar man stepped through.

“If it isn’t, Private Cooper.” SSG Hightower gave him a crooked grin. “I don’t know whether to call you a retard for thinking you were better than a grav-grenade, or a hero for saving an officer’s life. I can’t make up my mind so I’m not going to call you either. Be here tomorrow morning at 0600 for PT. I need to get you back into shape. Have a good evening, Ma’am.” He directed the last words at the LT.

“Goodnight, Staff Sergeant.” She turned her attention back to Coop. “Last thing you should know, Private. Your actions as documented by Lieutenant Commander Gold and your MSM gave you enough points to be eligible for Corporal. I’ve put your name forward to the Battalion Commander, and am expecting a response by the time we leave for the FTX. Do you have any questions?”

<Will you marry me?>

“No, Ma’am.”

“Then goodnight, Private. I’ll see you tomorrow bright and early.”

Coop gave the LT a crisp salute, did an about face, and marched out of the room. He waited until he’d left the HQ building before he let himself relax.

<Damnit! Why did I have to get the hot officer.> Now he’d be imagining that face when he got a lap dance later tonight.

It pissed him off all over again that Mike had cock-blocked him and Sandy.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 137

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Breckinridge, System 1776, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “AHHHHH…I love drugs.” Coop sighed as he lay awake on the operating table.

He’d been out of it for a little while, but the pharmaceutical cocktail in his system made it too dangerous to keep him out for too long. With the metabolic needs the drugs and nanites were demanding, he could slip into a coma and die.

“Easy there, soldier.” The doctor hovering over him with a computer-operated laser couldn’t smother his grin in time. “Stay with me here for just a bit longer.”

Part of the reason they’d had to wake him up was so he could put his LACS in MAINTENANCE MODE and they could get to work. Without his LACS in that setting they wouldn’t be able to fire lasers at it without the scales reacting and throwing high-intensity energy beams all over the place. They needed sustained, powerful bursts to get through the LACS armor. That and time.

“We’re almost through the one side. Is local anesthetic applied?”

“Oh yeah,” Coop replied dropping his voice a few octaves before bursting into laughter.

“Kid’s high as a fucking kite.” The nurse was resting her hand on his armored chest. Not that it would do much good.

“Ok, we’re through.” The doctor gave Coop a pity-filled look. “This might suck a little. We’re only a destroyer sick bay, you’re doped out of your mind, and we’re not exactly equipped for this…” he stopped talking there. It wasn’t exactly good bedside manner. “This might tingle a bit.”

It didn’t tingle at all. If Coop was being honest, he was only fifty percent sure he wasn’t dreaming this whole thing. Images of his weekend sexcapades with Eve kept flashing through his mind’s eye. Once, she even started making out with the experienced whore he’d dabbled with back on Mars, while he got to watch. That was hotter than hell.

<Hell…burning…> that thought, along with a pungent scent ended the imaginary threesome.

Coop was no stranger to the smell of burning metal scorched by explosions, but the scent of burning flesh was something entirely new for him. He could feel his body reacting as he put two and two together.

<They’re cutting off my fucking leg!> Abstractly, he knew that was what was going to have to happen after the grav-grenade flattened it and then crumbled it up into a ball like it was old-fashioned paper. The smell just made it all too real.

“Hold still.” The nurse grunted as Coop started to sit up. She couldn’t stop him from getting halfway into the seated position.

“Private Cooper, sit back down NOW!” someone yelled, but Coop didn’t give a shit. He was drawn to the repugnant smell of his own flesh being sliced through.

“Grab him!”

Coop felt multiple hands start to pull him back down, and a few of them had to be the reinforced bodies of marines, but it wasn’t until a golden head of hair came into view that they were able to push him back down.

“I’m through,” the doctor gave a huge sigh of relief. “All we have left is the far side of the armor and then we’ll be able to get the Private out of this and into a proper medical bed.

“I’m not getting out of this.” Coop clutched the chest plate of his armor with both hands. “The miners and pirates out there are fucking savages with modern guns!” Everything seemed to be melding together in his mind.

“Shit.” The doctor’s face appeared along with some mutli-spectrum light thingy. “He’s overdosing. Hold him down, Sir, I need to finish this fast.”

The smell of burnt flesh was quickly replaced by burning metal, and all Coop saw was blue eyes and golden hair.

“You hang in there, Cooper. We did not go through all of that just to die when we got to safety.”

“Hey, Gold. When did you get here? Where is here?” Darkness was starting to creep into the edges of Coop’s vision.

“Listen to my voice, Cooper. Stay with my voice. Don’t go toward the light.”

“What light? There’s no fucking light. All I see is your quaffed hair you dumb shit. I swear to god you could punch a hole in a battleship with the glare coming off that hair of yours.” That got a few laughs just as the cutting stopped.

The medical team and LCDR Gold quickly got Coop out of his armor. He was missing his one leg below the knee, but that was something modern medicine could easily fix. He’d be out of commission for a few months, but that meant he would get assigned to some ground-based medical facilities for regen and therapy. That meant local girls, legit bars, and maybe he’d even get to see his good old buddy Mike again.

Those were the happy thoughts that lulled him to sleep after he got juiced up with a shit ton of nanites that would keep any infection from setting in and purge the drugs from his system. When he woke up in a few hours he’d have to piss like a race horse.

 

Commodore George Zahn

Location: GSFS King Midas, York Sector, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Commodore George Zahn, the Mad Captain of the Intrepid, and a whole bunch of titles imposed by others sat on the bridge of the pride of the Gold Technology’s Fleet. King Midas was smaller than its Commonwealth counterparts, but he knew she was a fighter. He’d put her through her paces right out of the shipyards on Gold Prime, and he was confident she was the finest warship in the galaxy.

<Updated fighter launchers. Eight hundred top of the line drones, twenty percent more point defense lasers and railguns, one hundred and twenty five missile tubes, forty-two energy cannons in the 20 petawatt range, a next generation EW suite that the company is looking to sell to the Fleet next year, and a hull seven meters thick all packed into two and a quarter kilometers and crewed by twenty-five hundred souls.> Automation was taking a giant leap forward in the next generation of Gold Technology designs, and Midas was its poster boy.

The holo-tank at the center of the flag bridge was better in the CMDRE’s opinion than what was on the Fleet’s ships. The crew was something else entirely. That was the one thing Zahn missed about the military. It had more stability than the corporate security fleet. He would lose talented officers to other commands, department changes, or straight up being stolen by competitors. In the Fleet, he could at least count on some semblance of stability for the duration of a cruise.

It was hard to build a crew, to fight a ship, and to defeat the enemy when you had to change department OICs every other week.

<Not this time.> A smile crept onto the CMDRE’s lips.

Zahn was not a handsome man, and his smile might have led credence to his title the Mad Captain more so than his deeds. Just because he’d taken a cruiser headlong into the might of a pirate armada did not make him mad. In his opinion, when someone was confronted with no good options, then the best option was to go down swinging. Half of the Intrepid and the entire convoy of merchant ships owed their lives to his mentality. He’d only had to inflict thirty percent casualties on the enemy before they turned tail and ran. He knew they would. They weren’t real soldiers.

This mission was different. He’d been given his orders directly from the CEO. He’d sat in the titan of industry’s office and been given two data chips. One he was ordered to open when his carrier group departed for New Lancashire. The chip contained only three words: RECOVER THE HEIR. He thought the wording was weird, but who was he to judge the man who paid him significantly more than the Fleet ever did.

The second chip he held in his hand as King Midas rocketed through space faster than the speed of light with his small carrier group in tow.

“Transition in five minutes, Sir.”

“Thank you.” The CMDRE held the chip tight in his grip.

No one else knew he had it. He didn’t even know what it said, but he had a sinking feeling in his gut. Thomas Gold could smite a planet if he wanted to, and while the CEO had been composed during their short meeting, George could see that he was fuming with anger that someone had kidnapped his son.

He squeezed his fist, but there was no danger of crushing the mixture of polyplast and circuitry.

“Three minutes, Sir.”

The CMDRE just nodded as he unclasped his hand and stared at the chip.

King Midas shuddered only slightly as it dropped out of Alcubierre several light minutes from Cobalt Mining Station. George watched as the light-minute bubble expanded. There was no one within range for over an hour until the CWS Breckenridge popped into existence. A brief communication with the destroyer’s captain lifted a tremendous weight from George’s shoulders. Lieutenant Commander Gold was unharmed aside from a few scrapes and bruises. He was being transported back to New Lancashire while his gunboat Argo maintained security until George’s group took charge of the system.

A loud cheer went up from Midas’ crew when the transmission was completed. The CMDRE smiled and nearly forgot about the chip in his hand. Three hours later he relieved Argo and took up position around the rebellious space station. It was only then that he inserted the second chip into his PAD and saw the second part of his orders:

KILL THE REBEL SCUM

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Two Worlds – Chapter 135

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Cobalt Station, System 1776, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Video games had been a past time of young teenage boys and girls for centuries. Coop was no exception. Being a PHA Rat, his options were limited to the shit people tossed out after twenty years. It was what those burbanites called “generous donations to the less fortunate”. He really didn’t care how he got them, he just cared that he got to play them.

They were never the fully-immersive virtual reality models. The PHA didn’t have the machines for that kind of stuff, but they got all the other ones that measured your movements and mimicked them onto the characters. Coop had been particularly fond of the Duty Bound series. The collection of first-person shooters had been around for decades, and often mirrored real-world events. It let kids fight alongside the Infantry and Fleet as the Commonwealth fought the evil Blockies across the explored galaxy.

Looking back on it, Coop saw it as one hell of a propaganda tool. As he and Lieutenant Commander Gold did their best attempt at a three-legged-man race, he had a momentary thought of how much bullshit those games had fed him.

The rumble of his armor as his rail gun pinned half a dozen pissed off, rebellious miners behind the bend in the corridor snapped him out of it. Their retreat to the hanger bay was slow and cumbersome, and a big ass LACS was hard to hide when the place was swarming with people looking for it. Now, the miners had their location and they were doing everything they could to bring him down. The officer whose ass he was trying to rescue wasn’t being much help.

“We can take cover in here.” Ben sidestepped into the protection of a doorway and hit the panel to open it up.

“No!” Coop grabbed him with on hand while holding the M3 with the other. The rifle’s ammo was running low and he’d need to reload soon. “We need to keep moving. If we stop we die.”

It was not an exaggeration.

Rounds pinged off Coop’s armor as he hugged the wall. His rail gun spit out steady three round bursts at the people behind them while Coop aimed the M3 at the people in front of them. The pirate-led miners were shooting around corners to stay behind cover, so their aim was shit. That was the only reason Ben wasn’t full of holes yet. That, and Coop making sacrificial moves every once and a while.

“Push forward!” Coop bellowed, hauling the warship captain out of cover and struggling toward the next bend.

Coop aimed where he thought the guy was going to be. The miners didn’t vary their tactics much, and it had led to more than one body littering the HI trooper’s path. The weapon, hand and forearm appeared around the corner a little higher than what he’d anticipated. The miner got off two rounds before Coop adjusted. The first round missed Coop, hit the opposite wall, and ricocheted down the hallway. If Coop had his way, it would hit one of the assholes trying to shoot him in the ass.

The second round hit his still-functioning armored leg. The nanite scales did their job and the round bounced away after making contact. As that miner’s round sparked off the floor and flew downrange, Coop’s first round hit home. It hit the M3 dead-center and disabled the weapon. The second round hit the miner’s forearm, causing him to the yell out in pain, and grab the forearm with his opposite hand. Coop made his third shot count and put a round through that hand. The lower velocity round got stuck in the forearm behind it, but the nanites were already going to work and doing their deadly job. The miner screamed, fell forward, and Coop ended his misery with a mercy shot to the head. If there was another miner with that guy he was gone by the time Coop and Ben rounded the corner and got a short reprieve.

<Fuck.> Coop checked the ammo count on his rail gun. He was down to twenty-five hundred rounds. It was the only reason they were still alive, and he wasn’t sure he had the ammo to get to the hangar bay. <Only one way to find out.>

Ben was breathing heavily next to Coop. It wasn’t an easy task fighting, and half carrying an HI trooper in full armor for hundreds of meters. Ben’s in vitro enhancements were being put to the test, and he was being reminded of why he’d chosen to go into the Fleet rather than the Infantry.

“We’ve got to keep moving.” Coop didn’t let them rest for more than five seconds. Even if he was the enlisted of the bunch he was the subject matter expert, and Ben bowed to his authority. “A few more corridors and we’ll be there.”

Coop’s rail gun stayed locked in the rear position as they hustled down this corridor. It didn’t look like the miners were prepared yet so they tried to cover as much distance as possible. Halfway down the hallway the rail gun started firing, and they made it another twenty meters before weapons popped around the corner in front of them  and fired blindly.

<Don’t they ever learn?> Coop sighed as rounds sparked and pinged all over the place. A few even went through the walls and floor.

Coop added his own weight of fire to the turn ahead of them. He knew from his HUD that around that turn was a straight shot to the hangar bay.

“Eagle-One, you ready for us?” Coop split his attention between cover fire and talking with the Spyder.

If the miners and pirates had access to their coms it made sense to keep the chatter to a minimum. As for avoiding it altogether to keep their location a secret…that ship had sailed half an hour ago. Coop had only sent two messages to the damaged Spyder so far. The first told them to get ready for two friendlies, and this was the second. He’d send a third when they got to the war machine so their cannons didn’t blow this shit out of them.

“Roger that, Ballboy.”

Coop was so preoccupied with staying alive he didn’t have time to grimace at the unwanted call sign.

“Ok, Sir, we’re almost there. We just need to…”

Just when Coop felt he had a grip on the situation, the miners did something unexpected. The doors on one side of the hallway opened and over a dozen miners in heavy protective clothing charged out. A few were holding plasma torches in their hands as they gave a guttural war cry. Ben froze at the sight of men less than five meters away charging at them. Coop only gaped for a moment before he turned his M3 on them, and then gave a one-legged spring to meet them.

It was the cardinal rule of surviving an ambush: you fought into it like your life depended on it. Coop never saw what Ben did, but he cycled his M3 as fast as it could. He took down four with point blank shots before they collided. He was like a bowling ball hitting pins. Even glancing blows sent the remaining miners flying.

The M3’s magazine ran dry and he used it like a baseball bat. One miners head exploded from the force of the blast. Another – one of the ones with the plasma torches – tried to sneak behind Coop, but you couldn’t sneak behind a person with three hundred and sixty degree sensors. Coop’s rail gun swiveled and put a three-round burst in the man’s chest before returning to the task of keeping the other people behind them pinned.

The remaining six miners had recovered and dog-piled him. Normally, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but with only one leg it forced him off balance and sent them all crashing to the floor. Training took over, and the blades came out. Coop bisected two of the men as they rolled. Their blood and guts flopped out onto the floor, and made everything slick. Another miner with a plasma torch got to his feet with the intent of trying to cut through Coop’s helmet, but he slipped on his friend’s liver and landed with a skull-rattling CRUNCH. He didn’t get up.

That left three. One had a plasma torch, and Coop went for him, but he rolled away. The other two miners – both pretty big guys – grabbed Coop’s bladed arms and tried to hold him.

That was the stupidest thing they could have done. Coop brought them crashing into each other like a pair of symbols. They collapsed in a tangle of limbs, and Coop speared them both in the gut. They might live if they got medical attention, but Coop couldn’t care less. When they tried to kill him, Coop stopped giving a shit about whether or not they lived or died.

The last miner made a suicidal lunge. The plasma torch made contact with Coop’s shoulder and immediately warning sensors started going off. The nanites held for a few seconds, but the intense heat of the torch – meant to cut through just about anything with enough time – wore them down. The scales blackened, and then sparks started to shoot from the mechanism underneath it.

<This wouldn’t have happened in a V2.> Coop cursed when he remembered the new model’s scales were designed to hold up to energy attacks better.

It was a small victory for the miner until Coop grabbed the guy by the head and smashed it into the floor. It exploded like rotten fruit, and little chunks of brain flew in every direction.

“Jesus Christ, Private!” Ben was alternating firing between the group in front and behind them from the cover of a doorway.

Coop ignored the black scorch mark on his armor and crawled back over to Ben’s position. The officer helped Coop to his feet while his rail gun took over cover-fire duty. The look on the officer’s face told Coop he wanted to say something, but the older man kept his mouth shut.

<Good, because I don’t have time to hear you bitch and moan about the dudes who just tried to BBQ me.>

Ben got under Coop’s shoulder just as the heavy booms of 3mm rounds started whizzing past them.

“Shit!” They squeezed behind cover as much as they could.

<Nineteen hundred rounds. I need to make them count.>

“On three we run for it, Sir. Down this hallway, make a right, and down to the hangar bay doors.”

“What?” Ben’s pissed off look from Coop’s action was replaced with surprise.

Coop didn’t have time to explain. “THREE!”

Coop led the way into the hallway as his railgun went into full auto to keep the pirate with the Buss pinned. They moved as fast as they could to the next corner while concentrating all of their fire on the corner ahead of them. They drove the miners back enough as they rounded the corner that the poor bastards were caught in the open and gunned down. Ahead of them was the hangar bay door. The railgun continued to spit rounds behind them and the counter on Coop’s HUD spiraled down. He was only at two hundred rounds by the time they reached the door. Thankfully, operational security wasn’t something miners took into consideration. The door was open. Coop and Ben stumbled into the giant hangar bay and kept hustling.

Coop did his best to put the containers of raw materials between them and their pursuers, but every once in a while his railgun would roar to life again to keep the enemy’s heads down.

“Eagle-One, we’re coming in hot!” Coop announced when they were fifty meters out. He pinged STARTNET the whole way in so the Spyder’s 30mm cannons didn’t gun them down.

They broke into the open and rushed toward the bird. It was still lying awkwardly on its side, but the injured marine was guarding the door and gesturing wildly for them to hurry inside.

“Package aboard!” The marine called out as Coop and Ben collapsed onto the floor of the troop compartment. “Sir, get this on now!” He shoved a helmet into the officer’s hands. Sir, are there any breaches in your uniform.” The marine started patting down Ben and looking for any tears.

It took a few seconds for Coop to realize what they had planned. <Oh shit.> He went into his own menu and did a diagnostic.

His LACS had no fewer the half a dozen breeches from the fight. Most were around the stump of material that used to be his leg, which he thankfully still couldn’t feel. The plasma torch had also compromised the integrity of the armor in one spot. He needed to get those all plugged before they took off.

From his HUD, Coop commanded the LACS’ nanites into action. He programmed them to seal the holes in his armor and showed them were to start. They went to work, and within thirty seconds he had a good seal. It was in the nick of time too. The Spyder rumbled to life and didn’t waste any time in making a dramatic exit.

The Spyder had been hit by a rocket at the beginning of the battle. The engines were damaged and couldn’t successfully conduct flight operations, but this wasn’t an operation. They had the package, and they just needed to get off of the space station. The miners weren’t going to nicely open the hangar bay door for them either, so the pilot made his own hole. The 30mm cannon blasted away at the door. It buckled, crumbled, and finally exploded outwards. Crates flew all over the places as air blasted out of the station and into space. If anyone followed Ben and Coop into the hangar bay they were going to be human popsicles soon.

A few bursts of the thrusters and the pilot was able to maneuver them through the hole and into the abyss. It wasn’t a clean exit, and they took a few glancing hits from more crates, but it was the fanciest bit of non-flying Coop had ever seen.

Breckinridge is inbound. They’ll pick us up in ten mikes.” The pilot put in his two cents as they drifted aimlessly into space.

The crew had done their best to patch the holes in the bird, but they hadn’t gotten them all, so they spent the next ten minutes trying to find the leaks and plugging them. It was something to do until the destroyer arrived and sucked them back into its belly.

One look at Coop and they had him on a grav-stretcher and headed for sick bay. He didn’t have the slightest idea how they were going to get him out of the armor, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to be awake for it. As it turned out, they didn’t want him awake at all after what his body had been through and all the drugs pumped into it to keep him combat ready.

All it took was on simple shot and he was out like a light, but he wasn’t sure what he was going to wake up to.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 133

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Cobalt Station, System 1776, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Coop was drowning in darkness, but it was a good drowning. It was hard to explain how something that would kill you felt good, but it did. All the worries in his life were gone while blackness wrapped him in a comfortable cocoon. He wasn’t worried about getting shot at. He wasn’t worried about Gunney Topper giving him the shit details all over Honest Abe. He wasn’t even worried about the next woman he was going to chase – he’d found a particularly large-chested engineering spacer who looked open to the possibility of a midnight romp in the depths of Abe’s maintenance compartments. Hell, he didn’t even worry about Eve Berg and what that crazy bitch was up to.

He was completely comfortable in his bed of darkness.

That all changed in an instant. It felt like someone had stuck a grav-rocket to his back and kicked it into full gear. A light appeared above him as he was quickly propelled to the surface. As the light got closer his level of comfort lessened until finally he was thrust back into the neck-deep shit of the waking world.

“What?” It took him several seconds to focus. His vision was still a little blurred, and he was having trouble feeling his face.

SUIT INTEGRITY BREECHED

The glaring red letters flashed across his HUD along with a dozen other error codes.

“Ugh…fuck.” He wanted to move, but everything felt like it weighed a million kilos.

“Good, you’re awake.”

Coop honed in on the voice and looked up. A sweat-drenched face with dripping golden hair and blue flecks in his eyes was looking down at him. It was about that time that Coop realized he was moving slowly – very slowly – in the opposite direction.

<He’s dragging me.> That explained the sweat. In his armor, Coop was heavy as shit.

“What?” Coop repeated as he swiveled his sensors around three hundred and sixty degrees to get his bearings.

What had happened before the comforting darkness started to come back to him. His squad of marines had assaulted some under siege miner’s colony in the ass end of nowhere. Not only had there been hundreds of miners trying to kill them, but they’d been armed with modern rifles. The marines had taken casualties, but had fought their way through. They didn’t have the numbers to retake the whole station against that type of resistance, but they were able to accomplish their secondary mission of finding some bone-headed ship captain that got captured by the enemy.

<Looks like I found him.>

“We need to get the hell out of here.” Coop braced himself to get to his feet.

“No.” The officer put pressure on him to keep him down. “Don’t.”

The man was strong, but he wasn’t a match for an HI trooper in armor. Coop got his arm under himself and pushed up. He got high enough that he could get his legs under him and… he went tumbling to the left and crashed into the wall with the screech of metal against metal.

“What the fuck?”

“Don’t look down.” The officer ordered, but telling someone not to look down made them automatically look down.

There were very few times Mark Cooper had been rendered speechless in his nineteen years of life, and this was one of them. One of his armored legs ended just below the knee in a large ball of metal. It was multi-colored from whatever had gone into making it, but it was smooth in a way only enhanced gravity could accomplish.

<A grav grenade.> The memory of what had happened just before the darkness fell on him like a ton of bricks.

He’d found the captain, the dude who was now trying to drag him up a set of stairs with little success. The other marine with him had gotten knifed by some little shit while someone else had gotten a hold of a Buss and was unleashing hell on them. He’d been carrying the captain and the injured marine when the grenade had been lobbed in. He’d pushed off with as much power as he could and thrown the two guys clear. Apparently, it hadn’t been far enough. The tremendous force of focused gravity had grabbed hold of him and never let go.

<Fuuuuuuuuck.> Coop’s mind just went completely blank for a second. <I should have dropped the dead weight.> He looked up at the LCDR who wasn’t making a lot of progress up those stairs.

“Private,” the older man stopped to take a few deep breaths. “We need to get out of here right now. The pirates have got reinforcements coming and your squad mate is buying us time to get to cover. We need to move.”

The sound of gunfire hit Coop’s ears like someone had flipped a switch. It was easy to tell the difference between the M3’s 1mm rounds and the Buss’ 3mm rounds. There were a lot more 3mm rounds coming in their direction than 1mm rounds defending them.

“Help me.” The last thing Coop wanted to do was look weak in front of someone with blue in their eyes, but he didn’t have much choice.

The officer got under Coop’s left armpit and heaved. Coop got his foot underneath himself and did a one-legged squat. They got Coop to his feet, but hopping up the stairs was a completely different matter.

“Shit!” They were nearly to the top when Coop froze and looked around. “Where’s my weapon?”

The officer gave a look down to Coop’s thick stump and then back up at his helmeted-head. No more words were necessary.

<It gives a whole new meaning to being one with your weapon.> Coop remembered being yelled that on the ranges during Basic. Now it made him laugh in a self-deprecated way.

“We need to find cover. This place is crawling with pirates.” The officer’s eyes were darting around the new hallway they were stumbling down.

“We cleared a lot of this place.” Coop informed.

He strained to hear the sounds of a gunfight behind them, but an eerie quiet had settled over this part of the station. The churning of the engineering and mining processes could still be heard, but there were no more pops of gunfire. He took that as a bad sign.

Coop had only spent a small amount of time with the SSG, but he seemed like a good guy and a good marine. Now he’d probably had his head blown off by whomever the fuck had stolen that Buss. To make matters even worse, Coop and the officer were now sitting ducks. The only bright side in the otherwise supremely shitty last ten minutes was that Coop felt good –really good –pharmaceutically enhanced good. There was no other explanation of how we was able to get around while missing the bottom quarter of his leg.

They limped around the corner and saw people at the end of the corridor. The officer almost yelled out, but Coop stopped him by pulling him back around the ninety-degree bend.

“What…?”

“Those aren’t our people.” Despite the damage to the armor the friend-or-foe indicator still worked perfectly, and STRATNET was not registering those people as the good guys. “They’re hunting us.”

Coop appreciated the fact that the officer didn’t start to whine like a little bitch, but there was still a lot of fear in his bruised eyes. The more Coop thought about it the more he was afraid. They were in the middle of hostile territory. He didn’t know what had happened to the other marines, but the SSG was probably dead, and so was anyone else who went up against that Buss. They needed a plan.

“I saw a door part way down the hall. Let’s get to it and lay low for a second. We need to figure out what to do.” Coop got a nod of agreement from the officer.

They waited until the pirates vanished into another room and scurried as quietly as they could down the hall. Thankfully, the door was open and they pushed through it. It looked like a breakroom. There was a large food dispenser, tables, chairs, and an old, dirty holo-screen. It was nothing but static right now since the gunboat and destroyer were jamming any transmission into the station. That only made their escape plan that much harder.

Coop collapsed onto the floor and the officer did the same. They spent a few moments just sitting there catching their breath. They’d only walked a couple of hundred meters, but hopping on one leg and propping up someone in armor was no walk in the park.

“I’m Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold, but given our current predicament you can call me Ben.” The officer extended his hand.

“Private First Class Mark Cooper. Call me Coop.” Coop took the big man’s soft hand and made sure he didn’t crush it.

“Ok, Coop, so what is the plan?” Ben wiped sweat from his brow and looked longingly at the food dispenser.

Coop thought it was weird that he – the lowly enlisted grunt – was making the plan over the officer. An officer, who if he was in the infantry, would be a battalion commander.

<Fleet pukes. Only good for getting us from point A to point B.> Coop kept the thought to himself.

“The plan is simple, Sir. We get the hell off this bucket of bolts. My squad came in on a Spyder that crashed in the hangar bay. I don’t know if it’s space worthy, but it has big guns. I’ll radio them and get the situation. We’ll also check in with whoever is in charge of the rescue force now and get instructions.” Coop finished, but the officer was already shaking his head.

“No radios. The two pirates that were holding me captive grabbed a bunch of Commonwealth gear from a storage locker before you arrived, including a big communication’s node. They’re probably patched in and listening to everything you’ve been saying.”

Coop opened his mouth to argue, but snapped it shut. The backwoods miners did have modern rifles, the guys guarding the officer were pretty ready for them when they came to rescue him, and they’d been easily followed when they’d first started to clear that station. The bad guys listening in on their comms traffic was a pretty good explanation for that.

“Ok, no commo.” Coop made the executive decision on that. “But we aren’t going to make it to the rendezvous point of the hangar bay without a weapon. We’re sitting ducks here, especially you.”

Coop at least had the armor. All Ben had was a feeble smartcloth uniform.

“Then let’s get some weapons.” Ben said it like it was the simplest thing in the world.

“Sure, Sir. Let me just poke my head out of here and ask those nice miners for their guns.” Coop laid on the sarcasm pretty thick, and Ben blushed.

“I mean let’s set a trap and take them.” Ben clarified, but it was still easier said than done.

<We aren’t going to sneak up on anybody.> Coop took a sip from his hydration bladder and struggled back to his feet.

Ben gave him a hand.

“Sir, with all due respect,” Coop was planning on saying something not very respectful when the door hissed behind them.

It slid open to reveal two miners with their weapons dangling in front of them on makeshift straps. There was an awkward moment where the four men just stared at each other before springing into action.

“Fuck…!” Both miners yelled as they fumbled to bring the rifles on target.

Coop didn’t have any such fumbling. With training engrained into him he activated the twin blades in his LACS’ forearms. The meters-long, nano-edged weapons erupted forward as he lunged. The miners didn’t get their muzzles up above their hips before Coop’s blades slid effortlessly through their chests. The weapons were meant to cut HI armor, so human flesh was like cutting paper.

The blades exploded out the miners’ backs and painted the hallway in a gory Picasso of blood and pulverized tissue.

“Grab the guns,” Coop hollered as he lost his balance and fell forward.

He collapsed onto of the two men he’d just killed making even more of a mess. They didn’t explode like pieces of fruit dropped off a building, but it wasn’t pretty. Ben scrambled forward and collected the two M3s and Coop struggled to his knees and retracted his blades. He looked like he’d just gone on a rampage. Blood and guts covered the front of his armor and dripped from his forearms.

<Hopefully that’ll make these assholes think twice about fucking with us.> He doubted it would, but it made him feel good.

Ben handed him one M3, which he used to help prop himself up before running a diagnostic check.

“How did you…?” The officer asked sheepishly.

“Give it to me.” Coop handed Ben the weapon he knew was good to go, and ran a second test. The miners hadn’t had the weapons long enough to screw anything up, and they hadn’t fired more than a few rounds between them. “Please tell me you at least know how to shoot.”

“It’s been a few years,” Ben answered defensively, “but I remember the basics.”

“Just point it at the bad guys and pull the trigger.” Coop didn’t have a lot of confidence in the officer’s ability to hit anything. “It will at least make them keep their heads down so I can maneuver and finish them off.”

Coop stuck his head out the door and looked both ways. It was clear. “Let’s move, Sir. You take left and I’ll take right and behind us.” It was a horrible arrangement to cover everything, but there weren’t many good options on the table.

Coop just hoped they could get to where they needed to go in one piece. If they got back to the Fleet they’d be able to fix his leg up lickety-split. <And I’ll get some good R&R while I rehab it.> He was already planning on giving Mike a call when they got back to the destroyer.

The big-chested engineer would have to wait, but Coop had always wanted to try his luck with a nurse. He’d definitely have the sympathy angle working in his favor.

Previous

Two Worlds – Chapter 130

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Cobalt Station, System 1776, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Why the fuck is this room so big?”

“What the fuck did they think was going to happen?”

“Why the fuck are you talking instead of moving!?” The CPL cut into the chitchat and verbally planted his boot in a PVT’s ass.

Coop laughed to himself, but it got interrupted by the rumbling of the floor beneath his feet. The hangar bay of Cobalt Station looked like a third world war zone. About fifty miners lay dead and scattered throughout the space, with twice as many still fighting the advancing marines. Coop’s mines and the steady lobbing of smoke grenades was making it hard for the miners to inflict any more casualties. Even though they had M3’s, they didn’t have the armor networks to tie the weapons into. It severely degraded their effectiveness, but they didn’t seem to care.

Coop sighted a young-looking woman shooting the large rifle from the hip as she backed up and occasionally looked over her shoulder. A three-round burst of 3mm environmentally-friendly rounds hit her center mass and sent her toppling to the floor. His LACS neutral network logged that as his thirteenth kill of the day.

“We can’t sit here farting around anymore.” The CPL was pissed and Coop didn’t blame the older man. He’d been given command and walked right into a shitshow.

“Ballboy, get up there and plow the road. We’ll follow and cut a path through them. It beats the hell out of this slugfest.” Rounds pinged off the interstellar shipping containers housed in the bay.

Coop didn’t know exactly what the CPL meant by “plow the road”, but he had a few ideas. His giant Buss rotated the chambers to the grenade function while the remaining marines consolidated on their position. Coop fired off a few more smoke rounds – this time to either side of him – before reloading with something with a lot more bang. Then he told the CPL his plan.

“Hang on to your nuts boys and girls. We’re about to go for a ride.” The CPL stepped away from Coop and took cover behind a container.

Coop toggled to his weapons menu and did something MSG Smith had advised against in HI school. There were hundreds of weapons options to give an HI trooper maximum versatility and flexibility on the battlefield. Some were just downright ridiculous, while others could be a danger to the trooper and others. Coop wasn’t stupid enough to go that far, but his selection had the possibility to really fuck him up.

With his Buss set in rapid fire grenade launcher mode he pulled up the schematics of the station and zoomed in on the hangar bay. He got his location, got the exit door’s location, and planned to draw a straight line between the two points with grenades.

<This should be fun.>

“We’ll drop smoke every twenty-five meters.” The CPL ordered the rest of the marines while Coop lined up his first shot.

This little maneuver wasn’t going to kill the hundred remaining miners trying to kill them, in fact it was going to leave a lot of pissed off people chasing them. <But that’s why god made proximity mines.> Coop grinned.

They’d regroup with the rest of the marines, complete the mission, and then fight their way out. Coop would rather go at the rest of the pirates with a few squads of grunts than the seven they had now.

“Execute!” The CPL ordered, and everything in front of them started to explode.

Coop carved a path of destruction through the remaining hundred plus meters of the hangar bay. He used up the majority of his grenades doing it, but it was a hell of a show. The other marines dropped smoke every twenty-five meters on their flanks just like they said they would. It didn’t matter as much because any miners caught near the blast were to shell shocked to return fire until the charging marines were well past them. The whole deal only lasted a minute, but Coop was pretty sure he turned pyro in that short period of time.

“One and Two, this is Three. We’re through the hangar bay. Three casualties. The Spyder is down, I repeat, the Spyder is down. Casualty collection point is located at the Spyder.” The CPL added a STRATNET becon to the TACCOM message.

The red coded marine and the worst injured of the yellow had fallen back to the downed bird when Coop came up with his master plan to basically blow the shit out of everything. They’d rendezvous with the Spyder crew and hold up inside the war machine. The miners would have an impossible time cracking that bird if a half-decent defense was mounted, especially if they could get some of the secondary weapons systems back online.

That was a different group on a different mission. Coop and the CPL’s team had to clear this section of the station, find some stupid tin can captain, and get the hell out of here. They’d gotten through a hellish hangar bay, but they knew they’d only succeeded in kicking the hornet’s nest.

“Jam the door and let’s move.”

One of the marines took out a boxy device and placed it over the access panel that operated the door to the bay. He hit a few keys and a high-pitched whining noise filled the air. The little box scrambled the display and sent it into emergency lockdown mode.

“That’ll hold ‘em for a minute,” the marine grunted as he repocketed the box. It was also a useful tool to open up locked doors, and they all knew there would be a few of the ahead of them.

They formed two staggered columns – three on either side of the hallway with the CPL moving between them as needed – and started to clear the place room by room. The first two dozen spaces were empty quarters. They looked like single and family living units based on all the personal crap lying around. The owners were either holed up somewhere waiting for this all to end, or they were out there shooting at marines. Either way, Coop hoped they didn’t run into anyone. Room twenty-seven ruined that hope. Some douche looked like he was trying to take advantage of the chaos to liberate a few items that didn’t belong to him. He turned around quickly when he heard the door slide open and raised a two hundred year old pistol.

All the marine leading the clearing of the room saw was a man with a gun pointed at him, so all Coop saw when he entered was that guy’s brains blown all over the wall behind him. <Stupid dipshit. If they stopped screwing around we could be through and done with this. The more they fight the more they die.> Coop was starting to lose the adrenaline rush he’d had in the hangar bay. Killing stuff that couldn’t fight back wasn’t an enjoyable task.

The clearing was slow going because there were so many damn rooms. They were starting to look nervously behind them. It wouldn’t take forever for the miners to get the doors open and follow. Hell, if they couldn’t get the electronics to work there was the necessary equipment in the bay to pry the suckers open. Either way, no marine wanted to get shot in the ass. The longer they didn’t see the miners, the more nervous they got.

“Is there a better way to do this corporal?” Coop finally spoke up as they finished moving through some type of conference room. There was some good-looking chow on the table, so they must have been planning some sort of big meeting.

“If you can hack into the station’s biosensors and map the place for living organisms then we can skip these rooms and move on, but if I remember you’re a thirteen series correct? Did they teach you to hack between artillery sessions?”

Coop got the message. He needed to do his job and stop bitching. About eighty rooms later he felt like bitching a little more.

“AHHHHHH!” Screams erupted from room one-twenty-nine as the marines barged in. Coop was covering the rear, but he heard the CPL hurriedly try and talk someone down from doing something stupid.

That was about the time that Coop started hearing clanging coming from down the hall.

“Corporal, we need to move.” Coop had a bad feeling in his gut. “Corporal!”

“Keep your panties on, Ballboy.” The CPL exited the room supporting a young woman.

Her clothes were in tatters and she wouldn’t look anywhere but at the floor. Coop had a few guesses about what happened, but he kept that information to himself. The CPL was handling it, and Coop had bigger issues.

“That clanging is getting louder, Corporal. Let me have two guys and we’ll got check it out.”

The CPL nodded his head and Coop waved for two privates to form up on either side of him before they headed back down the way they’d come.

“I’ve got a solid mass heading this way,” Coop was a few hallways away when his millimeter wave radar started picking up something. “Let’s take it slow.”

It was a good thing they did, because two corners later they peaked around a ninety-degree bend and almost got their heads blown off.

“Where the fuck did they get this shit!?” Coop’s LACS identified the weapon that tried to cut him in half as another Buss, but the miners had mounted it on an old self-propelled bot and were marching down the hallway in search of victims.

To make matters worse, Coop could tell from the sound of the weapon firing that it was firing standard 3mm ammunition, not the friendlier rounds he was packing.

“Slow it down.” The CPL ordered when Coop relayed the news.

So Coop set an ambush. He staged two hallways away along the path the sled was traveling. He put some camo netting over two mines so they couldn’t be detected. It screwed with the sensors, but it wasn’t a big deal since he was going to manually detonate. The two regular grunts would mop up the mess after he blew the heavy weapon straight to hell.

When the miners rounded the corner, Coop was glad he’d covered up the mines and decided to manually detonate. They had an advanced group of three miners moving a good twenty meters in front of the Buss. If shit went down then those three would likely die first – and maybe by friendly fire – but it was a good counter to the mines Coop had been dropping everywhere.

<They aren’t a complete collection of back-system bumfucks.> Coop thought as the three scouts passed right over the mines.

Ten seconds later the Buss came into range and Coop initiated the detonation. Even around the next bend he felt the station shudder from the explosion. The commotion didn’t die down as injured men and women screamed in pain.

“Clean up on aisle two.” Coop joked as they moved into the hallway and dispatched the downed miners. It was as much a mercy killing as anything. The guys and gals were so jacked up they wouldn’t ever get fixed up this far out in the middle of nowhere. “Let’s get back to the guys.” They tallied another dozen kills between the three of them, and Coop made sure to put a few extra rounds into the Buss to make sure it never worked again.

They followed their team’s STRATNET icons to a large utility room the CPL had commandeered. The other marines had made a perimeter, and the CPL was in the center talking with someone with more authority.

“Roger that, Staff Sergeant. We’re on it.” The CPL finished up his SITREP as Coop’s impromptu team filed into the security perimeter. “Everyone listen up. Teams One and Two have finished their searches in their assigned sectors. The LT is down. Staff Sergeant is in command. We’ve got thirty percent casualties across all the squads. These fuckers have been picking us off with our own guns, but we’ve fucked them up pretty good. For every one of us they’ve shot we’ve gotten forty of theirs. ”

<Is anyone going to ask the obvious question? How the fuck did they get them?>

“No one knows how they got them, and I don’t give a shit. We’re here to do our job.”

“CPL…”

“Stow it, Cooper. We’re rendezvousing with Team One at this location.” The CPL cut off Coop and turned everyone’s attention to a waypoint that appeared on their HUDs. “We’re going to regroup and push deeper into the station. We haven’t found the missing skipper yet. Cooper, you’ve got point.”

<Great.> Coop kept his thought to himself as his neural network mapped the quickest way to the rendezvous point. After all, it was his job to take the brunt of an attack if it came.

They moved quickly and lethally through the station. A few loitering miners got what was coming to them, and a few innocents got told to hide in their rooms and lock the doors. Coop actually liked when they came across a person not trying to murder them. It was a minor relief that not everyone on this bucket of bolts was trying to kill them.

The fourteen other marines were waiting for them when they reached the rendezvous. The CPL huddled with the SSG and a SGT who’d taken over for the LT.

“Did the LT die?” Coop didn’t know of a sensitive way to ask the question to the grunt next to him on perimeter security.

“Nope, but he’s going to need a few new internal organs. I saw the medic shooting him full of medical nanites where his liver should have been.” The guy shrugged but kept his eyes on the hallway. It was big enough that five guys could run down it shoulder-to-shoulder; which was why Coop was on it.

They waited for the SSG to make a decision on what they were going to do next.

“Listen up, we’ve got a change of mission. We’ve suffered enough casualties that the destroyer’s skipper just wants us to locate and grab the officer that got himself captured. We’re going to need more marines if we want to take back the whole station, and they want to figure out how these Rim miners got their hands on modern hardware.

<Don’t we all.>

“We’re going down three decks into the engineering, processing, and sorting sections. It will get claustrophobic down there. These places aren’t made for humans to be traipsing through. It’s designed so bots can do repairs, but there are a few rooms down there if the bots need to get fixed. I’ve got four on the schematics, so we’re going to split up into four teams of three and one team of two. Ballboy,” he looked over at Coop, “you’re with me. We’re going to the main engineering control room. That’s where they most likely are, so be ready to do your HI thing and save the FUBAR officer who got us into this mess.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” Coop did a check of his weapons. He was low on ammo, out of grenades that could do any real damage, and he wasn’t going to set off a mine in a crowded space where big heavy machinery might crush him.

<Good thing my fingers are just as sticky as when I left the PHA.> Coop chambered a few hundred rounds he’d grabbed off the Buss he’d destroyed. He’d use them as a last resort, but they were better than nothing. <Fuck the station’s integrity. I’m not going to die for some idiot who got himself captured.>

“Let’s go, Ballboy.” The SSG had Coop take point again as they headed for the stairs.

Taking the grav-lifts would have been faster, but they would have been sitting ducks in those shafts. At least in the stairwells they had some maneuverability.

They went down three flights of stairs and immediately entered a space Coop could barely move in. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” He has to turn sideways to squeeze between two pipes that were reading temperatures over fifty Celsius. Whatever they were, they were doing something.

“Two hundred meters on the left.” An arrow appeared on Coop’s HUD and the distance counter shrunk the closer they got.

They each took one side of the hallway and rapidly moved forward. There wasn’t any cover so they had to move fast.

It was a good thing they did. Coop and the SSG had just reached the door when Coop’s sensors picked up the gun pointing around the corner, and it wasn’t just any gun.

“MOVE!” Coop grabbed the SSG by the back of the armor and practically threw him into the room as the roar of another Buss lit up the hallway. Coop felt the impacts of the heavy rounds as he twisted from the throw and tumbled through the doorway.

Searing pair flashed through his side and he screamed. The armor’s medical systems went into overdrive. A brief diagnostic and explanation of the injury flashed in the corner of the HUD. He’d been grazed by a round, but it had penetrated the armor. Medical nanites were being injected and blood loss was minimal. He was still green as far as medical indicators went.

“Help.” The call was weak and coming from the corner of the room.

A large man in CMUs was strapped to a chair. His face looked like someone had used it as a punching bag, which judging by the blood splattered around him was probably accurate.

“Look out!” He tried to warn them, but it was too late.

Someone rushed the SSG from a dark corner and threw a punch into his armored gut. Normally, that wouldn’t have done jackshit, but the SSG doubled over from the blow and his surprised gasp was audible over TACCOM.

“Me and Staff Sergeant need some help down here!” Coop radioed for backup as he aimed his Buss at the uninvited guest.

The man jumped back away from the SSG with something long and dripping in his hand.

<He’s got a fucking nano-blade. How the hell did this asshole get a nano-blade?> It didn’t matter to Coop. A thirty-centimeter nano-blade lost to a fully loaded Buss every time.

“NO!” The big guy struggled against his restraints. “One stray shot and you could kill us all.”

The guy’s yell distracted Coop long enough for the knife wielding asshole to jump behind some machinery and disappear. Whoever the hell the guy was he had to be pretty small to fit behind there.

“Get him out of here, Ballboy.” The SSG was leaning heavily on some pipe with his hand against his gut.

“Come on Staff Sergeant, you know I’m not supposed to leave a man behind.” Coop walked over and easily cut through the restraints with the edge of his forearm blade.

“We need to move, there’s a guy with…”

“I know. There’s a guy with a Buss guarding the hallway.” Thankfully STRATNET had him pinged so backup would be ready for him. “Let’s get you out of here, Sir.”

“Thank you.”

The LCDR – if Coop remembered his rank stripe correctly – looked genuinely happy to see Coop.

<It ain’t a bad thing for an officer to owe me one.> Coop was already thinking about when he could call in that token when he heard a gunfight erupt in the hallway. The loud booms of the Buss drowned out the M3s.

“Let’s go, Ballboy. We don’t got all day.” The CPL’s voice demanded from where the relief team had taken up covering positions.

“You provide cover fire and I’ll run for the stairs. Don’t shoot my big ass though. This hallway is tight.” Coop radioed back, and then looked at the unarmored LCDR and the injured SSG. “I’m going to carry your ass out of here, Sir. Staff Sergeant…”

“Don’t pick me up like I’m your bride, Ballboy. I just need a helping hand, and I’ll help with that cover fire.” The SSG looked like he needed to be carried, but Coop knew plenty of guys that would rather die than admit weakness.

<It’s your funeral.>

“Cover fire in three…two…one…go!”

Coop busted out into the hallway just as reinforcements started to light up the other end of the corridor. The SSG twisted and fired his M3 one-handed. Bullets flew by so close that Coop sucked in his gut even though it wouldn’t do anything. The reinforcements had a good angle on the bad guy and were able to keep him pinned down as Coop hauled the beaten LCDR and wounded SSG several hundred meters towards safety.

They made it about three-fourths of the way there when Coop heard what no infantryman ever wanted to hear.

“GRENADE!”

Coop had a full three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view with his HUD and he knew the grenade was going to land about ten meters from him. There was nothing he could do about it but ride the blast.

Instinctually, he poured power into his armor’s artificial arms and threw the SSG and LCDR ahead of him. If Coop was lucky they would exit the blast radius. With them taken care of he activated the ES system in the armor. The nanites hardened at a molecular level right as he poured power into his legs and jumped. He’d ridden enough blast waves that he knew how to…

The grenade detonated and Coop felt a tugging sensation that would have left him with major whiplash. Instead, he felt unbelievable and agonizing pain in his leg until his body couldn’t take it anymore and he passed out.

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