Two Worlds – Chapter 272

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

CWS Agincourt slid into position with puffs from her positioning thrusters. The hull of the task force flag ship had stopped leaking atmosphere, and repair crews could be seen scurrying around the hull.

Admiral Ward made sure the George Bush stood between his ship and any planetary energy weapons that wanted to take a shot at him. Carrier Group Alpha spread out around Carrier Group Charlie to cover their rear and flanks. Now, the Bush’s ships to concentrate on bombarding the planet and not worry about someone sneaking up on him.

Ward wiped some sweat from his brow as he stowed his helmet on the headrest of his command chair. The holo-tank was still scrolling with damage reports, but everything was being handled by the ship’s captain. The greater strategic picture was out of his hands for the moment.

“Commander,” he opened a shipboard TACCOM channel to the marine leader. The woman’s tired face, with a bit of dried blood on her close-cropped bangs, stared back at him.

“I’ve got the first companies ready to disembark now, sir,” she replied. “Due to casualties, and the general mess the Windsor’s made onboard, our deployment plan is totally fucked.” She didn’t look at all worried about using coarse language around the ADM.

“Understood, Commander,” he gave the woman a sympathetic look. “The 942nd looks like it’s got things handled for the moment. Land your troops with all due speed, but make sure they’re ready to fight.”

“Aye aye, sir,” she cut the line.

Ward pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to summon up a little energy. The adrenaline rush of battle was wearing off, a crash was coming, but he didn’t have time for that. This was only step one of the game plan. He pulled up the latest data on Bravo and Delta groups. Delta had been savaged by the Windsor’s. The assault carrier at the center of the formation was still making its way slowly toward Harper’s Junction, but just about all of its escort ships were limping behind it. The Windsor’s had broken off contact when Bravo came into range, and their retreat cost them some ships, but in the tally of lives and ships, the enemy came out ahead in that engagement. In the tally of the meeting the mission objectives, the Commonwealth was victorious. They just paid a big price.

Aggie’s AIs had calculated Delta, with Bravo providing cover, was nineteen hours from dropping anchor around Harper’s Junction. That meant the 942nd was going to be handling the brunt of ground combat while Aggie’s marines got their act together and got in the fight.

<Then there is still the remaining ships to worry about,> he sighed as he got up off his chair and stretched with an audible crack of the spine.

The Windsor fleet wasn’t gone. It was regrouping in orbit around one of the nearby planets. He had a drone screen between them so they couldn’t sneak up on his forces, but he still didn’t know what they had planned. He also didn’t like the firepower they still had at their disposal.

He stepped out of his armored flag bridge and nearly slipped on a pool of blood.

“Take it easy, sir,” a marine CPL advised as he picked up a body in dragonscale armor. The marine with him picked up another body with Windsor armor. Both of the dead soldiers’ blood was intermingled at the hatch to the bridge.

Ward wasn’t one to spook easily, but he gulped involuntarily. He’d never known how close he was to the enemy boarders. He’d focused on his job, coordinating the battle, and that tunnel vision was readily apparent now.

“Good work,” he gave the CPL a pat on the shoulder and headed for his ready room. The room was pockmarked with bullet holes and more than one scorch from a plasma explosion.

<This gives me a whole new appreciation for recovery operations,> he bent over and started to sort through the stuff he could save and the stuff he’d have to trash.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

<All those VR games and holo-movies are complete horseshit!> Coop cursed as rounds slammed into his shield for the last few meters before he put a wall between him and his enemy. The SGM was right behind him returning fire, while both used their bulk to provide cover for the unarmored Eve.

In all those movies and games, after you faced off with the big, bad boss man you would emerge to your allies already victorious over the evil bad guy’s subordinates. In reality, that was a bullshit. Coop had faced off against the Windsor mech, and come away without a scratch, but now he had to fend off the rest of the palace’s security forces with only the half-strength SRRT team as back up.

“Last mag,” the GYSGT informed as she swapped out her M3’s empty 1mm drum for a fresh one.

Coop quickly checked his own ammo gauge before checking on Eve. She’d been patched up by the GYSGT while the SGM figured out how the hell they’d get out of this hornet’s nest, but it wasn’t meant to hold. They’d controlled the bleeding and sedated her enough so the pain wasn’t too bad, but she was still ambulatory. SSG Hightower was assigned to guard her, which Coop thought was redundant since he wasn’t leaving her side.

The GYSGT slapped the magazine into her M3, popped up, and fired a burst downrange. A couple of Windsor soldiers, who’d taken the lack of fire as an opportunity, caught the brunt of the blast as they tried to creep up on the team’s position. One went down from what had to be a lucky hit, while the rest scampered for cover.

“Where we going, Sergeant Major,” Coop asked over TACCOM. He had an uncomfortable feeling like a noose was tightening around his neck. The enemy was going to pin them down and wear them down if they didn’t move.

“Our exit is a hundred and fifty meters in front of us,” the SGM announced.

Coop popped up to take a look, and only saw the palace’s exterior wall. Between them and that wall were a number of enemy troops behind cover and concealment, and they opened fire on Coop once they saw his head pop up.

“No way in hell we’re going to…” Coop began, but the SGM cut him off.

“Wait for it,” the SGM had to be looking at something on his HUD because no one else knew a thing. “Wait for it,” he repeated.

A flash of light emitted from above as railgun rounds tore through the atmosphere on a direct course for the city. Coop instinctually ducked, like any survival-oriented human would, when those duro-steel rounds smashed into the city’s shield like the hand of god. The shield flashed with energy as it absorbed and deflected the rounds from the ships in orbit, but it did succeed in providing a significant distraction, which was only compounded when the palace wall directly ahead of the team exploded.

“Sergeant Major took down the wall’s generator while inside the palace,” Sullivan informed as he jumped up with the rest of the team.

“Why didn’t he tell us?” Coop followed suit and vaulted the wall to provide covering fire so the unarmored members of their team could advance.

“He did,” Sullivan’s Buss boomed next to Coop’s as they established a firing line and started to eat away at the enemy’s positions. “You were too busy making lovey-dovey eyes at Berg to notice.”

“Well…whatever,” Coop didn’t have a comeback, and some the Windsor’s were trying to move around to flank them.

He drove them back into position with withering fire that killed at least two members of that assault element. More gunfire erupted behind the Windsor’s as resistance fighters started to pour through the breech in the walls.

<Those magnificent bastards!> Coop grinning like a kid in a candy store as the rebels fanned out to envelop the Windsor’s.

The enemy’s fire discipline started to crack as they realized they were being hit from all sides, and that was Coop’s cue to move. He half-trotted next to, half-carried Eve forward as he sprayed enemy position with his plasma-tipped rounds.

“Move right!” the SGM yelled when they were about halfway to the exit.

Coop pivoted to put his body between the enemy and Eve. They were out in the open and moving, so he was the cover. He fired where his AI told him the enemy was, and his rounds smacked into a blue barrier.

“Fuckers have an area shield!” he relayed, as he switched to his regular rounds and poured fire on the shield on full auto. The constant disruption would keep the enemy from effectively targeting the team.

“I’m set, move, Cooper!” Sullivan sent when he was ready to provide cover fire.

Coop disengaged and sprinted back toward a chunk of wall that Sullivan was using to rest his Buss on. Coop slid in next to him, but the cover wasn’t big enough for the both of them.

“Grenades and we make a break for it!” the SGM ordered. The team was only fifty meters from the exit. Bodies littered the open space, with many more belonging to the rebels than Windsor’s.  They were brave but outmatched by the enemy.

Coop cycled his barrel until the grenade chamber popped into place. He made sure a frag round was in the chamber followed by smoke.

“Fire!” the SGM was moving before he finished.

The grenades were set to a lower velocity so they would penetrate the shield. The frag grenades lobbed out of the Busses and through the energy barrier followed by the smoke. There were muffled screams as the frags detonated, and then the smoke obscured everything.

“Move!” Coop yelled as he pushed SSG Hightower forward.

The two unarmored NCOs grabbed Eve between them and ran for the exit. The LT was in the lead with the SGM covering her, Mike right on their asses, while Sullivan took up flank security, and Coop rear security. He was the last to leave the position, and the first to see the return volley. The problem was they didn’t look like any grenades he’d ever seen before.

“What the hell?” he watched as the oblong-shape arched toward their old position. Since he was nearly fifteen meters away, with a shield and armor between him and the incoming blast, he wasn’t worried, and he was even less worried about the rest of the team.

The enemy had blown their load on an old position. Coop grinned at the oversight until a red warning siren sounded in his armor. Text came up on his HUD to warn him of whatever problem his AI had detected.

<What the hell?> The text on his screen looked like a feral cat had been given LSD, starved for a week, and then allowed to send a message on a scratch post. Coop stared at it in complete confusion was a half-second.

“What is…?” Sullivan seemed to be getting the same message.

{Translate?} Coop thought through his IOR and the alien thing in his brain went to work.

If Coop would have known this would be an issue, he would have put alien default translation protocols at the top of his check list when he reformatted the GYSGT’s armor.

The deranged-cat scribbles reordered themselves into English, and Coop’s blood ran cold.

Alert: Shield Frequency Deciphered. Recommend fresh scramble.

“Do you know how to…?” Sullivan and Coop were obviously on the same wavelength, but those seconds were critical and it was already too late.

The oblong grenades that had been tossed out of the enemy’s shield, at the SRRT team’s old position, ended up being anything but harmless. The Commonwealth had nothing like them in their inventory, and only a handful of the grenades were even on Harper’s Junction. The team didn’t know this, but the grenades were only given to the Queen’s personal bodyguards, and they had a single purpose…to kill armored enemies.

Sensors in the grenade used magnetics and energy sensors to hone in on their target, so despite being thrown over a dozen meters off course, they had no problem finding their targets. Once the grenade’s AIs identified their victims, they initiated the first of their three stages. Stage one was designed to identify and defeat an enemy’s shield. The grenades had to be in the vicinity and measuring the enemy’s shield for long enough to crack the frequency before being used. So, despite being in the courtyard the entire battle since the SRRT team emerged from the palace, they were only being used now.

With the frequencies deciphered, the grenade’s computer initiated stage two. Stage two was an energy blast that was meant to break down a shield’s integrity. Traveling at the speed of light, the blasts of energy hit Coop and Sullivan before they knew what was happening. Before they could shout in surprise that their shields were down, the grenades engaged the third and final stage. A powerful graviton blast turned a hunk of duro-steel in the center of the grenade’s housing into a lance of death. The lance was launched from the grenade, on target for the two LACS, on speeds that had never before been achieved by electro-magnetic projectiles. It ignited the atmosphere as it passed through the space between the grenade’s housing and the two armored soldiers.

With their shields down, all Coop and Sullivan had was their 6cm armor between them and these armor-killing spikes.

All this happened so fast that Coop wasn’t able to follow it. However, the silicon brains of his LACS were, which was what saved his life. Like some HI, he had presets and favorites programmed into his armor. The language default wasn’t one of them, but his grav-boots engaging when in the presence of a sudden gravitational change was. He had losing a leg to a pirate’s grenade on that stupid mining facility, while saving LCDR Gold’s ass to thank for that.

So, when the graviton burst fired the armor-piercing lance at him, Coop’s presets identified the explosion and pulsed his grav-boots.

{Armor Breech!} his IOR blared inside his brain a second before overwhelming pain washed over him.

Coop screamed and didn’t even feel himself falling to the ground as his LACS dumped drugs into his system. The pain subsided to a dull throb about the time he realized he was on his back, and in the open about fifteen meters from the exit.

Sullivan was almost at the exit and he was down too.

<What the hell?> his groggy mind tried to fight through the haze of the drugs.

His training took over and he ran a suit diagnostic. His left thigh was a mess of red icons on the results. The armor had been breached, there was internal injury, and it didn’t look like he was getting up on his own anytime soon.

“Sergeant Major, I’m hit,” his voice sounded emotionless over TACCOM.

“Stay put, Sergeant, I’ll be there in one.” The SGM replied.

Coop saw the NCOIC dragged Sullivan’s LACS the last few meters to the exit while firing his Buss one handed. Plasma rounds impacted the area shield, which was still obscured with smoke. The GYSGT, Mike, and SSG Hightower were leaning into the wall’s opening and taking shots with their weapons to keep the Windsor’s head down.

The SGM got Sullivan’s LACS on the opposite side of the wall and ran to Coop. Grenades thumped out of his Buss and splattered against the shield. The enemy had tightened things up, but in doing so had obscured their own view of the battlefield. No one could see shit through that smoke. Not that Coop cared. He was looking down at his thigh and marveling at the meter-long, duro-steel spike that had impaled his leg and was sticking out the other side.

<It’s not every day you see that,> his drug-addled brain thought as the SGM grabbed him by a carrier handle at the back of his armor and started pulling him toward the exit.

The enemy was hunkered down to ride out the rest of the fight, so they didn’t take any fire as they got out of the palace. Hightower, Mike, and the GYSGT were providing security on the war-torn street while the LT was bent over Sullivan’s LACS. Coop only got a glance as he was plopped down on the opposite side of the wall, but it didn’t look good.

The other SGT had a duro-steel spike sticking out of his chest plate where his heart would normally be, and the LT’s face wasn’t a vote of confidence in his condition. Coop tried to hail his on TACCOM…nothing. He tried his IOR…nothing. He reached out to try and connect suit-to-suit with the man who’d helped cover the team’s retreat with him, but the LT held up a hand to stop him. She shook her head and looked back up at the SGM. The armored NCOIC hung his head for a second.

<Fuuuuuck,> Coop didn’t know if it was the drugs or sadness that was hitting him harder.

“We need to keep moving,” the SGM announced. There would be time to mourn later. “Cooper, can you move?”

“If you get me off my ass, I can stumble along, Sergeant Major,” Coop replied.

“If we can make it to the outskirts of the city, we should be able to keep our heads low and ride this out until the cavalry arrives.” The SGM set a waypoint on Coop’s HUD and then yanked him to his feet.

<Fine by me,> Coop thought as he limped forward. <I think I’ve fought enough for one day.>

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Two Worlds – Chapter 262

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

<This little piggy went to the market. This little piggy should have stayed home, and this little piggy makes things go boom. Blue is cool, red is dead.> Coop thought to himself as he connected the last of the ignition devices to the composite explosives.

A string of them was wrapped around the back side of a large, metal tube. Inside the tube were the energy relays of a main power conduit to one of the large surface-to-space cannons designed to protect the capitol.

Harper’s Center was not a well-defended city, which worked for the Commonwealth this time around. They had a handful of surface-to-space cannons to help keep assault carriers from dropping troops right on their doorstep, but most were still out of commission from the last battle, and Coop was trying to take out the rest.

The city also had two PDCs on the outskirts of town. Both were still badly damaged from the fighting, and the SGM was going to make sure the weak shielding that was available didn’t come back online when the Windsor’s needed it the most. Still, the Commonwealth would likely leave them alone if the civilians evacuated there. After all, they were still Commonwealth citizens in the government’s eyes.

The SRRT and rebellion had a firm grasp of what countermeasures were available to Harper’s Junction before the Windsor’s invaded. That wasn’t what they were worried about. It was what the Windsor’s had put in place since then that made them nervous.

“We’re good here,” Coop announced as he awkwardly twisted himself out of space between the pipes. Two rebel soldiers stood guard with barely concealed submachine guns. They would give the local cops pause, but if legit soldiers showed up they wouldn’t even tickle their armor.

“What’s next?” The bigger of the two rebels asked. His name was Stavos, and if he strung more than five words together that was a big deal.

Coop pulled out a paper list. Not something on his HUD or IOR, not even a polyplast slip. A legit piece of paper. I was one of the few times in his life he’d even held the rarely used substance.

When he asked the SGM why the list was on written on paper, the NCOIC replied, “So if you get caught you can eat it.”

Coop had licked the paper. It tasted plain enough, and as a Rat, he’d eaten worse.

“We’ve got to go two sectors over and disable a junction box. We’ll need to make sure we leave enough room for it to complete normal operations, but when invasion protocols kick in it’ll short circuit and kill power to two sections of town.”

Sabotaging that junction box was as much about getting the civilians out as making sure the Windsor’s had to spend time and resources fixing the problem, which would lead them right into the ambushes the rebels were setting. The SGM had really organized an insurgency’s wet dream.

The sector the junction box would blackout also belonged to the sector surrounding the palace. Having the local security force’s response time off by even a few minutes was going to be worth its weight in diamonds when it came to getting the rest of the team back. Insiders loyal to the rebellion had already reported the captured members’ location. They were all there: Eve, Mike, the LT, SSG Hightower, and even the injured Gunney; although the latter was in the infirmary on a separate level. That was going to make getting her more difficult, but the SGM had a plan.

Coop just hoped it worked.

 

Eve Berg

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

Everything was dark, calm, and quiet in the corner of Eve’s mind. She’d centered herself and retreated there as the Windsor’s tortured her. It was a trick taught to her in Ranger School during SERE training. Not everyone was able to do this. Some people’s minds were just too hectic, but those who could pull it off had an ace up their sleeve that was sure to be a thorn in the side of their jailers.

She pictured something, for her it was a small flame, and everything became that. She focused on the flame and became one with it. As stupid and backwards as the whole concept sounded, it worked, and she was able to ride out the worst of what her interrogators inflicted on her.

The worst thing about torture, what they’d failed to really simulate in school, was how long it could go on. By now, she was sure every inch of her had been cut and sliced. Her shoulder had been dislocated, bones broken, she’d been sapped with energy weapons, and just shot out of frustration at least once. As she pulled herself out of her protected corner of consciousness she got a look at herself in the full-body mirror the torturers had placed in front of her. It was supposed to inflict psychological trauma for someone to see themselves so mutilated, but as she focused in front of her, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. That was another setback of modern torture. People just didn’t die after all the pain inflicted. They were healed right up so the sick bastards could go to work on them again.

“You’re awake, good.” The female sergeant who always talked with her was seated just to the right of the mirror.

Eve was still naked as the day she was born and restrained, so it came as a surprise when the restrained snapped open and she fell to the ground.

<Now would be the perfect time to kick some ass,> she laughed to herself, but this wasn’t a holo. She couldn’t just bounce back from being tortured for what felt like months and take on the trio of big royal marines that were covering her.

She felt incredibly weak. So weak that her legs trembled when she struggled to her feet. The Windsor’s had basically starved her, and only given her enough to keep her alive. All her physical enhancements were useless unless she had enough calories to keep her fighting. If anything, they were a bigger hindrance now.

She stood there, naked, in front of the men and woman trying to think of something to do, or at least something interesting to say, but the woman beat her to that. She tossed a pair of clothes at her.

“Get dressed and follow me.” The woman walked to the door without looking back.

The clothes were plain and thin. They were enough to cover her modesty, but not enough to be used against anyone or hide anything. Eve slowly dressed in them as she watched her watchers. They were in standard armor, so they were frontline troops, not mechs, but that didn’t really matter. They’d fuck her up if things went sideways, so she did what she was told.

“Five meters,” the team leader ordered her as they left the torture dungeon that had been her home for god only knew how long.

Eve knew they were overreacting. A stiff fart from one of them would throw her off balance, but she kept her spacing from the woman. She followed down a corridor. There were other rooms, but no guards on them. She counted the rooms and the number of steps it took her to the turn. She didn’t know if she’d have to do this in the dark or without eyes when she tried to escape. They made a right turn and at the end of hall was a larger reinforced door, she guessed a lift, but they didn’t go to it. They took the second door on the left that led into a more spacious room.

There were other people in the room.

“Gun…”Eve began, but a glare cut her off.

The GYSGT’s face was severely bruised, obscuring her beauty behind a mess of black and blue. LT Wentworth, Mike, and SSG Hightower were also there looking exhausted but otherwise unharmed.

“So you’re a gunnery sergeant,” the Windsor sergeant sat down at a table on one side of the room. “The way she talked to you, I’d either put you at a private or lieutenant. You’re young either way and not in charge,” she studied the LT. “You, on the other hand are more seasoned. Some type of sergeant,” she pointed at Hightower. “Same with you, but not up to his standards,” she quickly dismissed Mike. “Lastly, you,” her eyes fixed on Eve. “You’ve got too much spunk to be anything but a corporal or sergeant. Prolonged service weights you down more, and you learn some tough facts about life and the galaxy. The Gunnery Sergeant understands this.” She completed her eerily accurate deduction. “Don’t worry. We’ll eventually identify you, parade you out in the streets as an example of your oligarchy’s attempts to defy the will of this planet’s people, and then you’ll be turned over to them for proper justice.” The woman didn’t gloat. It was just a statement of fact.

“All I want from you is information. How many more are with you? When is your Commonwealth going to counterattack? Give me this and I’ll tell the local authorities to take it easy on you,” she pointed at everyone but Eve. “You however. You destroyed a lot of public property and killed a few civilians. I doubt they’re going to let you off easy, so feel free to stay silent. If your compatriots help, maybe I can keep you alive.” A small smile tugged at the woman’s lip.

Eve hacked up what little saliva she had and spit on the table in between them. “Fuck you.”

As if on cue, a frenzied chirp emanated from the other woman’s body. She pulled out a PAD of some sort and opened a message where none of them could see. Eve might have not been able to see it, but she saw the slight tightening of the skin around the woman’s eyes. Something was up, and she just couldn’t resist.

“Something wrong?” she asked sweetly.

The woman didn’t answer. She got up and left the room. Her intentions were clear. She’d brought all the captured SRRT members into the same room to try and glean intel from them. She had done that, but the tables had been turned. She’d let them see something was wrong. That gave everyone a little bit of comfort.

 

Admiral Michael Ward

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 

He’d pushed the task force hard, but it was worth it. Aggie smoothly transitioned into normal space with only a slight tremble. Other ships wouldn’t be as lucky with their greener crews and fresh off a refit, but a couple of people loosing their lunches was a small price to pay for their timely arrival.

“Status?” he ordered and the holo-tank started to update.

Harper’s Junction wasn’t anything special. It was out of the way, and wasn’t much of a junction to anything, but the Windsor’s took it, so he was here to take it back.

“Alpha, Charlie, and Delta formations are reporting minimal dispersion, but Bravo…” the ADM didn’t need the tactical officer to continue further.

Bravo’s carrier group was scattered over several million kilometers. If they’d transitioned back to normal space closer to the planet, the Windsor’s would have been able to pick off the Commonwealth ships with ease. Fortunately, the battle plan called for them to arrive far from the target. They wanted the Windsor’s to commit to a course of action with time to react.

“Looks like we’ll be settling for Plan Three.” He sat back in his chair and watched the rest of the carrier groups get their acts together.

The task force was thrown together so fast and sent into action that there wasn’t time to develop clever names like most units did over time. They were simply Carrier Groups A, B, C, D, and the same was true with the battle plans. Plan One was if everyone transitioned well and were able to approach the target from their designated vectors. Plan Two was Alpha jacking up their transition, while Plan Three was Bravo Group screwing up and everyone else adapting. It meant the three carrier groups would approach the planet, while Bravo acted more as a reserve. It would allow the Windsor’s to concentrate more power on the three carrier groups, but it would also allow Ward to reinforce or break through somewhere if need be. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the reality he had to work with.

“Enemy forces should be learning of our transition in three…two…one…” the coms officer counted down.

As the light speed sensors updated, the holo-tank the ships in orbit around the planet began to move. The information was several minutes out of date, but the lag would lessen as they continued their approach.

“Let’s get to it people. We’ve got a planet to win back. Drone scouts out. Let’s make sure they don’t have any surprises waiting,” he sat back and ordered.

Now came the calm before the storm.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 249

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Suck it up, big guy.>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{Mike I’m here. Ping me.}

{Coop? That you?}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He passed out without answers.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 244

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thurgood Station, United Commonwealth of Colonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

Queen Josephina I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 242

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thurgood Station, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“There she is,” Coop yawned at the holo-screen mounted to the bulkhead in grunt country.

They were still several thousand kilometers away, but Thurgood Station was an imposing sight. The station was owned by the Marshall Collective, a group of financers who’d played the long odds and hurried out to the Outer Rim before the rest of the corporations and governments started to expand.

It was a gamble that paid off. When the Diablo Sector was officially established, Thurgood Station sat in a resource-rich junction system at the center of it all. If the system had a habitable planet it would have been the sector capital, instead it had to settle for the economic hub of the region.

The station itself had been expanded from the first structure that was established over a century ago. Now, Thurgood Station held over thirty million permanent residents. Nearly double that were trading on the station at any given time, and the station’s owners had contracts with everyone from the Commonwealth government to Gold Technologies, and even down to independent ship owners. Corporations and entrepreneurs rented berths for their ships while the Commonwealth paid a discounted fee for the anchorage they had in a private part of the station.

When Coop and the rest of the SRRT had left for ET world there had been two battlecruisers and four destroyers docked at the anchorage to provide commerce protection and security for the station. Now, Coop saw an additional two battlecruisers, four battleships, and an assault carrier occupied the entirety of the anchorage’s berthing. Conversely, civilian commerce seemed to be lighter. Thurgood had hundreds of docks rented out to companies like Gold Technologies, but only about a third of them were full.

“Looks like they’re on a war footing,” Eve commented as she walked in and plopped down next to Coop. Coop was hyper-aware of her thigh against his, but he tried not to let her know.

<Play it cool, Coop. You’ve got her right where you want her.> Their trip to ET world had done wonders for his relationship with Eve. It was just like old times. Now, he only had to worry about Aiko slipping something poisonous into his chow.

“We’re docking in ninety-three minutes. The skipper and LT want us underway again in less than twenty-four hours.” The GYSGT announced as she entered the room behind Eve.

“Come on,” Coop grumbled louder than he intended.

“Do you have a problem with that, Sergeant?” Cunningham stressed Coop’s inferior rank.

“No, Gunney. It’s just that we’ve been on this tin can for nearly six weeks. It would be nice to stretch our legs and breathe some less-recycled air,” Coop replied.

“Our officers agree.” The GYSGT’s words surprised Coop. “And that’s why our turnaround time is twenty-four hours instead of six. Everyone will need to help offload the diplomats’ luggage, load on our new V4s, and the supplies for the duration of this mission. After that, you have a pass on Thurgood until our departure time. Does that meet with your expectations, Cooper?”

“Yes, Gunney. You’re running a five-star establishment here.”

Cunningham turned and walked out, but Coop was pretty sure he heard her mutter some choice four-letter words about him.

“So what do you say, Eve?” He turned to her and gave his best smile. “You want to grab a drink?”

“Only if you’re paying and we get a little shitfaced.” She winked back at him. “Too much time in a duro-steel tube isn’t healthy.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Coop smiled.

Ninety minutes later, he was playing baggage claim as they hustled to get the Minister and her team’s crap off the ship. The LCDR had wanted his own berth to speed along the resupply, but that was vetoed by the Rear Admiral in command of the small battlegroup assigned to the protection of Thurgood Station. The officers and SGM had briefings to attend, and the RADM wanted them on his ship for easy access. The arrangement also provided better security for the Minister. When Argo finally settled into her cradle in the carrier’s gunboat bay, the place was crawling with diplomatic security agents. The PM wanted the Minister safe and sound back on New Washington ASAP.

The woman stopped and talked to the LT and LCDR Gold for a few minutes, which ended with handshakes and salutes. Of course, the people who’d actually put their asses on the line to rescue her ill-fated diplomat were busy unloading luggage and trying to match it to its intended recipient. Thankfully, the diplomats were just glad to get out of Argo’s confines. The carrier was palatial by comparison, and they wanted to take advantage of that before they were put on a fast courier for the three-day trip back to New Washington.

Once the last bag was offloaded, Coop was ready for chow, so of course that was when the Gold Technologies people showed up with eight very-large crates. A small argument ensued between them and the SGM, before the NCOIC came over to the rest of the team.

“They need us to run a full diagnostic before they’ll sign the suits over to us, plus a short briefing. It’s going to take a few hours.” That got groans from everyone. Their free time was shrinking by the second.

“Let’s get on with it then. Over here wrench monkey, I’m first.” Everyone glared daggers in his direction, but Coop didn’t care.

{You snooze, you lose.} He let them all know it over the IOR.

As much as he wanted to get the hell out of here, Coop couldn’t rush the fitting process. This directly affected combat readiness and performance, and if he ever wanted to have another rumble between the sheets with Eve Berg, he’d have to be alive to do it. On the bright side, all of his favorites had been saved in his IOR, so when he booted up his LACS, it was like the other one hadn’t been destroyed, which begged the question, how had the other one been destroyed.

“A software glitch,” the Gold Technologies engineer explained when it came up during the briefing. “Integrating some of the new technologies with our existing designs required some inventive patches by our software team. Unfortunately, from what we could determine in your after action reports, the enemy combatants during your mission were able to scan the LACS, find the weakness, and exploit it.

{I’ll believe the Squids did this when Jasmine Cunningham shows up at my quarters and blows me, video tapes it, and makes me a star by putting it on the net.} Coop sent the message to everyone below the rank of SSG.

{Yeah, the universe will be so impressed by how small your dick is,} Aiko shot back immediately.

{Hahahah.} The laughter rang in Coop’s ears.

{She got you good,} Mike shrugged and gave Aiko a respectful nod.

“Lock it up!” GYSGT Cunningham snapped at them. For a second, Coop thought she’d heard him talking about her sister, but it turned out she could just tell they were having an off-the-books conversation when the engineer was talking.

{Coop does have a point.} Eve quasi came to his defense. {There is no way in hell the Squids were capable of detailed scanning of our shielded LACS. My money is that the Stormbreakers, or another Hegemony species, got it when we were pulling security, and forwarded the info to the Squids. The Minister did say the whole thing was some type of test. Hopefully, we passed it.}

{We turned them into fried calamari. I’m sure we passed.} Coop backed her up.

The engineer continued without any knowledge the grunts were having a side conversation. He explained the small upgrades to the new V4s they had: higher bandwidth for limited QE function in the command models, better battlefield AI assistance, which the SGM would be doing training on in route to their destination. Best of all from Coop’s perspective was the shield was now ingrained in the V4A’s instead of just fastened to the armor. The engineer concluded that the software glitch had been fixed, and all other patches triple-checked for the same issue.

“Any questions?” The engineer asked at the end.

“Can you take some customer feedback back to your bosses?” Coop inquired.

“Sure thing, Sergeant. We always value a feedback loop to make better products.” The engineer was using buzzwords that made Coop’s anger spike. It confirmed, in Coop’s opinion, that this was only a game to them measured in dollars.

“Can you please tell your software geeks that they can firmly shove their heads up each other’s asses. You fucktards nearly got us killed with your ‘overlooked’ glitch.” Coop added insult to injury by using air quotes. “Next time, don’t fuck it up.” He was seething by the end.

“That’s enough, Cooper.” The LT shot him a glare that said not to say one more word. Coop bit his lip, but stayed silent.

The engineer was red in the face, but his retort was waylaid by the SGM, who was out of his seat and steering the man away from the SRRT. That left the GYSGT to deal with the rest of the grunts. She stared Coop down until he looked away.

“We all know they screwed up, Cooper. The LT drafted a heated correspondence to Thomas Gold himself about the fuck up. Don’t rub salt in the wound. Those software geeks are going to be working on your LACS through your entire military career. It’s a good idea not to burn bridges. Understood?”

“Yes, Gunney,” Coop took a few deep breaths, but he was already feeling better now that he’d given the wrench turner a piece of his mind.

“Good.” The GYSGT’s eyes lost focus for a second, which told everyone she was consulting her IOR. “It’s 21:16 now. We docked at 12:15. Everyone will report back to Argo no later than 11:45 tomorrow morning.” Argo’s shipboard time synchronized with Thurgood when they arrived, which would give the crew wicked spacelag if they were staying here longer. “If you are late, you spar with me first thing after arriving on board. We clear?”

Coop might be bigger than the Gunney, but she was a cruel bitch when it came time to throw down. Her strength, experience, and speed made her a nightmare, and she was known to inflict injuries on her sparing partners. Unless ordered to, people usually stayed clear of that part of the gym when she was practicing.

“Yes, Gunney!” Everyone yelled back with enthusiasm for their impending freedom.

“Good. You are released until formation. Keep your IORs open for inbound traffic in case you are immediately recalled. The safety briefing is simple. Always have a battle buddy who is sober enough to take you back to the ship. Wrap it before you tap it, and don’t end up a guest of the MPs. We’re an SRRT, the best of the best, don’t act like an idiot. Dismissed.” She wasn’t halfway through the word before everyone was moving with a sense of urgency usually reserved for combat.

Coop really wanted to get out of his CMUs for once, and he had one pair of civvy smartcloth tucked into the bottom of his locker. He gave it a good spray of odor and grime cleansing nanites to make it more presentable. He also tapped into Thurgood’s net with his IOR. The station accepted his connection like it was a PAD and gave up the requested information. He made a reservation for two at a high-priced restaurant. After all, he had money to burn, and a girl was more likely to put out if you spent some money on her.

He gave the nanites a minute to work before changing and giving himself a once over. <I look good.> He thought to himself as he headed for the airlock to the station. Eve said she would meet him there.

He surfed the net for a minute while he waited for Eve. He nearly missed her when she appeared, because the woman who stepped into view was wearing an honest-to-god smartcloth dress. Coop had only ever seen Eve in CMUs and her birthday suit. For some reason, her dress was even more exciting.

Coop couldn’t help but give her a head to toe appraisal. She looked hot. The dress clung in all the right places while still being airy and carefree. He suspected it was something women wore in the summer, that was meant to catch the breeze and excite male imaginations. Coop knew he was seeing an all new Eve, and it made him slightly frightened what that meant.

“Shut your mouth, Cooper. You’re drooling all over the deck.” The voice and attitude was good-old Eve’s, but the expression on her face betrayed that she was glad his jaw dropped at her appearance. “What’s the matter? Have you never seen a dress?”

“Um,” Coop didn’t know how to respond, but the grin he got told him that not being able to respond was the correct reply.

“So are we going to go, or are you just going to eye fuck me until our pass is up?” Eve raised an eyebrow that spurred him into action.

“You look fantastic,” he finally got out the compliment as he extended his arm.

“You clean up decently yourself,” she replied as she took it and led the way to the airlock. “Let’s have some fun. Who knows how long it’ll be until we get time alone together.”

<What is happening?> Eve’s sudden attitude change was throwing him for a loop, and he knew he had to find out before the pass was over.

He wasn’t sure if he would like what he found. He’d never been a fan of change.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 239

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Planet beneath The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude, Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings

 

“We’ve got to push left!” Coop ducked behind some kind of trash can as incoming rounds smacked against the crappy masonry around them.

As the number of enemy tentacle creatures increased, so did the volume of fire they were able to pour into the field generators Coop and Mike were carrying. The portable shields were better than sliced bread in Coop’s opinion, but they weren’t perfect. When concentrated fire was put on a spot it broke down the energy’s integrity and allowed stuff to get through. For the tentacle assholes’ tiny projectile weapons, that amounted to thousands of rounds a second, but when you had several thousand of them closing in on you from all directions even a moron could coordinate that fire.

Add to the rounds getting through their shield and their lack of armor, the SRRT also had to deal with the improvised barriers the enemy was throwing in their path. They had the diplomat’s beacon reading loud and clear now, and he was less than half a kilometer away. Crossing that half kilometer was turning into a shit show as every street intersection they came upon had an improvised road block thrown up…and on fire.

“We’re running out of streets, Cooper,” the SGM grunted, but didn’t yell. If anything, the NCOIC was cool under fire.

Coop knew from his IOR that the SGM was posted up against a building less than twenty meters from him. The whole team had been condensed down to a thirty meter perimeter to maximize the shield’s integrity. Sullivan and Mike were with him while Eve and GYSGT Cunningham were sticking close to Coop. The snap of Eve’s rifle going off less than a meter from Coop’s ear told him there was one less Squid out there to worry about.

“You’re seeing what I’m seeing, Sergeant Major!” Coop was a little less composed than his leader.

The Squid’s road block was random crap piled up about a meter and a half high and then set on fire with some rancid chemical concoction. Even from fifty meters away, the things smelled like asses – plural – because one ass just didn’t do the smell any justice. The last thing Coop wanted to do was get any closer to that steaming inferno of shit.

“We’ve already got to double back as is, and time is of the essence. They know we’re here, so they might just kill our guy and bury him in a shallow grave. We need to get there now.” The SGM relayed as a series of waypoints appeared on Coop’s IOR. It was a battle plan and a route to get to the diplomat all rolled into one. “On my command we punch through this barrier and push forward.” The SGM said it like he was inviting the whole team to brunch. “Three…two…one…execute!”

Four HE grenades exited Busses and impacted the barrier like the wrath of the Squid’s sea god. It blew the barrier, and anything within ten meters of it, into even more finely dispersed rancid shit. Coop ducked behind his cover to avoid the debris, but some still fell down on his back. He tried not to gag as he got to his feet and pushed forward.

There was no resistance getting to the former roadblock, or to the corner beyond that, but once they rounded the corner they came under renewed fire. Judging from the volume the Squids sounded pissed. The whole world in front of the team seemed to blue-out as the shield flared from thousands of incoming rounds. Coop dove for cover, which wasn’t remotely fun or graceful with the heavy generator on his back, but it saved his life.

“Shit!” {Shit!} The exclamation came through Coop’s ears and then his mind.

“Sullivan’s down,” the LT relayed with a little more emotion in her voice than the SGM. “It was in and out clear through his leg. Nanites will repair the artery and I’ve got him from there.” The LT might be the OIC, but everyone, including her, knew this was the SGM’s show.

“Gunney, I need you to take Alpha and make a path. We need to go two hundred meters and then make a right at the intersection. The diplomat’s beacon is in the third building on the right.” All of the SGM’s orders had been in the battle plan he’d relayed through the IOR, but it was a new way to communicate, and sometimes old habits took over.

“Cooper, you and me are on grenades. Berg, I want you to switch weapons to something with a higher rate of fire. If these fuckers rush us I don’t want them on top of Cooper and me before we can switch ammunition.”

She gave them ten seconds to lock and load before standing up and firing a three-round-burst of HE grenades at the enemy. Coop followed her lead, but aimed ten meters farther. They alternated back and forth to turn the whole street into a kill zone. The Squids might be stupid by Hegemony standards, but no one is that stupid. They gave up shooting for pot shots and charged.

Eve went down to one knee for better stability and let the Buss do the work. On full auto it was a buzz saw. Where bullets had trouble penetrating the shield, slow moving creatures did not, and the Squids poured through the blue barrier only to be chewed up and spit back out.

“Reloading,” Eve informed what felt like seconds later.

Coop and the GYSGT, who’d taken cover while Eve butchered the ETs, popped back out and started lobbing grenades. The Squids tried another charge, but by then Eve was ready for them.

“Coming up on your six,” the SGM informed as Bravo team trotted up behind them when they reached the intersection. “They tried to hit us with charges from behind at the same time. I think they thought they could catch us by surprise.” The SGM shook his head at the ET’s tactical blunder.

All around them it looked like someone had blown up a warehouse full of rotten sushi. Dead Squids covered every centimeter of space. Coop and the rest of the SRRT were squishing their corpses underfoot as they advanced.

“Ok, it should be the third building on the right,” the LT glanced around the corner and immediately pulled back as more rounds punched into the shield right in front of her face. “How’re those shields doing, Cooper, Enders?”

Coop hadn’t checked the generator in what felt like hours, but was actually minutes. “We’re down to forty percent, ma’am.” As if on cue, something big hit the shield and dropped it three percent.

“They’ve got plasma weapons!” The SGM yelled out. “This must be their HQ where all the big guns are located.”

More rounds started to land on top of the shield and dropped its battery life even further. “Fuck they’ve got mortars!” Coop exclaimed as he looked around for cover. The problem was that there wasn’t any.

Sure there were the ramshackle dwellings the Squids called home, but those didn’t protect them from overhead bombardment. The only thing keeping the SRRT alive was the quickly dwindling shield.

“Close ranks!” The LT ordered the exact opposite of what you were supposed to do when under indirect fire. Coop was about to politely educate her on this fact, but she beat him to it. “I know it sounds bat-shit crazy, but do it. I want us close together to maximize our shield protection. Once we’re close I want Cooper’s shield to form an outer layer protecting us. Enders, you collapse your shield bubble to form an interior layer. That way when Cooper’s fails yours will still be ready. Hell, it might even have a few minutes to recharge.”

Coop shut his mouth after the LT explained her decision. It was smart, and Coop kicked himself for not thinking about it. Despite the clever use of the shields, it only bought them a few more minutes to live. The mortars kept pounding away at them, and if they stuck their heads out into the next street, heavy plasma weapons would open up on them. Coop didn’t even know if they’d make the target house before those weapons chewed through their shields and cooked them all. Then the Squids would get to feast on BBQ human for the first time.

“We need to get rid of those heavy plasma cannons,” Coop said more to himself as he peeked around the corner.

The Squid at the controls saw Coop and took a shot. The weapon took out the building Coop had been hiding behind, and another few percent of the shield’s power as Coop scrambled backwards. It wasn’t for nothing. His IOR had mapped the cannon’s location inside the cover of another residence at the other end of the street over a hundred meters away.

“No shit, Sherlock, and how about you keep your head down!” Eve grabbed Coop by the scruff of his CMU’s so he wouldn’t do something stupid again.

The gesture was surprisingly protective and intimate given their situation, but Coop didn’t have time to think about it. He needed to figure out how to stay alive. The answer turned out to be simple. It was the same thing a team would do if they were taking indirect fire in any other situation. The real issue was, would it work in this diplomatically sensitive instance.

{Argo, this is Ballboy, call for fire, over.} The only way Coop could do it was over his IOR. Thanks to their command features, the LT, GYSGT, and SGM all snapped their heads in his direction. The LT opened her mouth to say something, but the SGM put his hand on her shoulder and shook his head.

The meaning was clear. It was the right tactical decision. In fact, the SGM had already thought about it, but bringing it up to Argo and the non-warriors in charge of this diplomatic mission was something else altogether. Coop had made the call, so it was Coop’s ass on the line. Coop was surprised the SGM was covering his ass like that, the NCOIC didn’t strike Coop as that type of person. Then the SGM met Coop’s gaze, and Coop knew that wasn’t the case. Coop had simply beaten him to the punch, and despite the shit situation they were in, Coop couldn’t help but beam with pride.

<Maybe I really am pretty good at this soldiering thing after all.>

{Coop, is that you?} Aiko’s voice popped into his mind. {What the hell is going on down there?}

Coop and the team had been out of contact with the ship since the start of the mission. There was supposed to be a communications blackout because this was a never-even-happened black op, but everyone probably got a little nervous when their LACS beacons went offline.

{No time!} Coop’s irritation leaked out over the transmission, but that was because another round of mortars landed on their heads and dropped his shield below thirty percent. {I need a fire mission at these coordinates.} Coop sent the information his IOR had gathered. {I need a tight-beam burst from Argo’s energy cannons, one hundred meters, from here to here. The big gun we need taken out is here, but the drag is going to take out any opposition between us and where the hostage is being held.}

{What the hell are you talking about? Stop fucking around, Coop.} Aiko’s disdain was coming over loud and clear.

This was not the time and place, and when another round of mortars fell on them, because the enemy had them zeroed, Coop snapped. {Aiko, I need you to pull your head out of your ass right now. This isn’t me fucking around. We’re sitting ducks here. If you do not authorize this call for fire the team is going to fucking die – D.E.D. dead. I know you hate my guts, and I think you’re being a bitch, but it doesn’t fucking matter. Order the fucking strike now or pass me to Gold!}

{I’m here, Sergeant.} The LCDR sounded like he wasn’t sure his IOR was working.

{Thank you, Sir.} Coop reassured him. {Now can we get that fire mission rolling?}

{I’ve passed it up to the Minister. She’s in command of the overall mission, not me. It’s her call.} The LCDR’s response didn’t fill Coop with optimism.

{Anything else you want to get off your chest while you’re at it, Cooper?} The LT asked as the wait dragged on and things continued to explode all around them.

{Yes, ma’am. You need to pay me more.} Coop deadpanned. It took a second, but then Eve chuckled, Mike grunted acknowledgement, and even Sullivan chimed in and seconded the motion.

Even the GYSGT suggested some type of increased hazard pay for the SRRT team. They were discussing how much when the LCDR got back to them.

{Fire mission approved. Argo is moving into position, ETA three minutes.} By divine intervention the diplomat had been taken hostage almost directly below where they’d been staying in the Golden City, or else it could have taken more than an hour for Argo to get into position. That was time they didn’t have, and even three minutes was cutting it close.

Coop’s shield failed before Argo fired. The entire SRRT team, one of twenty, qualified and trained teams on the latest and greatest tech in the Commonwealth, was huddled together where a simple frag grenade could have killed them all. Then, a blinding flash lit the sky and the ground bucked beneath them. Atmosphere did a lot to disperse beam weapons, so they were nowhere as deadly as they were in space, but the newly-upgraded energy cannons on Argo were more than enough to cut through the flimsy materials in the Hegemony PHA, and the even more flimsy Squids living in them.

The loud explosion of the heavy plasma cannon being destroyed at the end of the street was all the motivation the team needed.

“MOVE!” The LT led the charge up and across the street to the target house. The street below them was nearly bubbling from the energy dissipation, and the charged corpses of the Squids caught in the line of fire crumbled into ash as they SRRT rushed to stack against the door. “Go!” The LT kicked down the door and peeled away to cover their six.

Coop was the first through, and his Buss spit out plasma-tipped rounds at the space filled with stunned Squids. A few seconds later the space looked like a slaughter house, and any Squid that was still alive was slithering for safety.

“He’s beneath us. Find the stairs!” The SGM was one of the last in the building as Coop and company went from room to room exterminating the remaining enemy.

Eve ended up finding the stairs, but they weren’t stairs at all. It looked like some sort of gelatinous goo. You stepped in it and it sunk down or propelled up depending on the floor you were on. It took the SRRT team members thirty tedious seconds to get from one floor to the other. Coop suspected that the Squids could swim through the liquid and move faster, which was why he stood guard when Eve descended behind him.

The downstairs consisted of a long corridor and a single door. Coop’s IOR registered that the door was thicker at the far end, but that a grenade would do the trick. It did. The grenade, one of Coop’s last ones, blasted apart the door, and Coop followed the blast of shrapnel into the room. What he saw ended up seared in his memory.

There were a handful of Squids, but unlike the Squids he’d dealt with so far, these ones moved slower and had a slightly duller color to their bodies. Coop guessed it had to deal with age, and he might as well be facing the Squids’ council of elders. Not that Coop gave two shits.

One of the squids was attached to the restrained diplomat’s body. The man’s eyes were bulging as the Squid had a tentacle stuffed in his throat and both nostrils. Coop didn’t know if the Squids were torturing the man for information by suffocating him, or if they were throat-fucking him, and he didn’t stop to ask. His sector of fire didn’t contain the diplomat, so he concentrated on blasting his handful of old Squids. They moved slower, were easier to track, and Coop painted the walls with their blood. When he turned around, Eve had one hand on the Squid covering the diplomat’s face, and the other was using her combat knife to cut the thing to pieces. Finally, the thing died and sloshed to the ground.

<You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.> Coop couldn’t hide his displeasure at seeing the diplomat who’d been captured was the same fucktard from Argo who ordered Coop to switch bunks with him.

<Sullivan took a bullet for this waste of oxygen.> Coop grimaced, and promised himself to double down on the extra hazard duty pay plan when he got back to the ship.

{Argo, this is Wentworth. Jackpot…I say again…jackpot. Immediate extraction would be most appreciated.}

Immediate wasn’t totally immediate. The splitstream tech needed space and specific dimensions to work within, so it took nearly twenty minutes for them to find an LZ and to get streamed back to Argo.

As they waited, Coop thought it was weird the Squids didn’t press their attack. He didn’t argue with their decision not to. He just found it odd they gave up so easily.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 237

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Planet beneath The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude, Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings

 

Coop didn’t panic when the lights went out. Despite a few evaluation reports from tight-ass NCOs, he considered himself a good soldier, and he knew there were procedures in place to deal with situations like this. Step one was to reboot the system, followed by reestablishing communications, and a full weapon system diagnostic before getting back into the fight.

Coop tried to access the LACS through his IOR and then manually. Both were unresponsive. <Well the designers didn’t give us a procedure for this.>

Coop’s best guess was some type of EMP weapon to take the suits offline, but LACS were supposed to be shielded against that type of attack…or at least the human version. <The best military equipment the human race has to offer, and some of its best soldiers, and we get taken down in some Squid shithole without even firing a shot in anger. That’s gonna look great in the history books.> Coop fumed.

{Eve…Gunney…Sergeant Major…Lieutenant? Can anyone here me?} All he got was silence.

<Fuck it.> Coop tossed caution to the wind and began executing the shit-out-of-luck procedure.

If everything went to hell in Little Red Riding Hood’s handbasket, the designers had enabled an emergency molting feature in a LACS. This would allow a soldier, in an emergency situation, to shed the armor and continue the fight on foot. The realignment of armor plating and severing of internal circuitry required to execute the maneuver deadlined the LACS until a properly equipped armory could make repairs. Right now, the only armory Coop knew of that even knew the SRRTs and V4A’s and B’s existed was back on New Savannah. If Coop did this, he was going to be hoofing it for the rest of this tour.

<It’s not like I have much of a choice,> Coop thought as he began executing the complex set of maneuvers he hoped he’d never have to undergo in combat.

Coop understood the necessity to have super awkward maneuvers like this to not accidentally molt a HI trooper during combat, but now that he had to get out of the LACS in a hurry, he cursed the engineers for their foresight. He felt like a drunken ballerina as he contorted and twisted to reach manual release mechanisms built into the armor. He could barely reach some of them, and he was pretty sure he pulled a muscle or two in the process.

The armor began to loosen around him the farther he got in the process, which made things easier, but before he got to the last step he paused. <My buss was in my right hand and I had a pistol on my left hip.> He mentally went over where his offensive weapons were, followed by the nearest grouping of grenades. The artillery shells were worthless now. He couldn’t just pick them up and throw them at the enemy.

Coop took a few breaths to psych himself up and get his blood and anger flowing. Something out there had knocked his LACS to the ground. He didn’t remember being notified of any incoming projectiles or energy blasts before his armor went offline, but that didn’t mean whoever had kidnapped the diplomat wasn’t waiting just outside the suit with a plasma cannon to turn Coop into fresh human BBQ. For all he knew, eating him might be a delicacy to the Squids.

<Three…two…one…> With a final pull and heave, Coop pushed the entire back half of the LACS off and emerged into the red-tinted light of the planet.

He took a lung full of what passed for air in this place, and tried not to cough. It was breathable…barely…but it tasted like he was swallowing farts from someone who’d eaten way too many chicken wings. He only let the stench distract him for a second as he scanned for his weapons and any enemies. He’d only completed half of his three hundred and sixty degree turn when something hard hit him in the back. For a second, he’d thought he’d been shot, but then something black and slimy slipped under his chin, around his neck, and started to squeeze.

“Motherfu…” Coop’s curse was cut off as the black tentacle clamped down.

It was stronger than Coop thought, but not strong enough. Coop reached back to grab the Squid he felt clinging to his back. The thing scurried around trying to avoid his grasp, but it wasn’t big enough to evade and choke at the same time. Coop got a hold of it and pulled it off his back, but it did not release his throat. If anything, Coop pulling it away only tightened its grip. Instinct took over and Coop chomped down on the extended tentacle.

The squeal the Squid gave as Coop’s teeth passed through it slimy skin was satisfying. The lime green, putrid blood that shot into Coop’s mouth was not. It made the planet’s pungent air smell like galaxy’s finest aromatherapy.

Coop made sure his priorities were straight. He threw the Squid down on the ground and then drove his boot onto it with a satisfying squish. The thing popped like an over-filled water balloon. After the threat was dealt with, Coop was free to bend over and puke up everything he’d eaten since arriving on this god-forsaken planet.

Even as he puked, Coop staggered over to his armor and wrenched the pistol out of its magnetic lock. The weapons scanned his GIC when he grasped it and allowed him access. An ammo count and targeting sights popped into his vision as the weapon linked with his IOR. He scanned the area again, and saw something black flying through the air at him. Apparently, the squids could jump. The ET had all nine of its tentacles spread wide. They varied in size, but the longest wasn’t more than half a meter. Where all the tentacles met was a ball of tissue. Some sort of mouth opened from that ball and let out a warbling shriek. Maybe it was pissed because Coop killed its girlfriend.

Coop didn’t give two shits. He assumed that the ball of tissue at the squid’s center also held their brain, so he put his targeting icon on that and pulled the trigger. The high-velocity dart wasn’t plasma tipped, but it had more than enough velocity to punch right through the unarmored and unshielded squid. The thing exploded and spread green blood-goo everywhere.

“Fucking disgusting,” Coop spit to cleanse his pallet of ET blood and vomit. By the time he did that the rest of the team had started their own combat molts.

The GYSGT was out first, followed by the SGM, Eve, and the rest. Mike was one of the last out, and he looked a little worse from wear.

“Grab whatever gear you can carry,” the LT was taking the loss of their LACS in stride. “Cooper, Enders, make sure you get those area shields up and running. Without the LACS, that’s the only protection we’ve got now.”

Coop almost argued that there was no way the portable shields were still good if the LACS were dead, but a touch of a button showed the shields were good to go. He’d leave it to smarter people than him to understand how they were still operational when the LACS were nothing more than scrap metal. Instead, he grimaced for two other reasons. First the portable shield weighed a few hundred kilos. Lugging that thing around was going to be a pain in the ass. Second, the LT was right about their lack of protection. Coop grabbed a few grenades and magnetized them to his smartcloth. He put his pistol back on his hip and grabbed his Buss. He put some ammo into pouches he also got from his LACS, and then cannibalized some circuitry from the offline suit to thread through openings to construct a utility belt that he slung diagonally across his body. The shield generator went on his back. He shifted it to make it comfortable, but with the cords there was always going to be something pinching him. SOP if they came under attack was to take cover, unsling and entrench the shield so it couldn’t be targeted, and then return fire. As Coop surveyed the area, there wasn’t a lot of places to take cover.

The team was in the middle of squid slums. Since the ET’s were much shorter than humans that stacked their dwellings high into makeshift towers. Even from where they stood, Coop could see black shapes scurrying in and out of openings in the small boxes. The way they moved using their tentacles sent a shiver down Coop’s spine.

<At least they die easy.> He told himself.

“We need to move to cover. Form up into wedges. Alpha first followed by Bravo. Keep your spacing, but stay within the shields’ range.” The SGM ordered, and that was Coop’s signal to turn on their defense.

The shield hummed to life as Coop connected with his IOR. He made sure the power levels were in the corner of his vision at all times, but not in the way of his targeting apparatus. He wasn’t on point since he was humping the shield. That honor fell to Eve. She pushed out to just under twenty five meters from Coop and stalked forward. She had her sniper rifle out. A regular human carrying the long-barrel rifle would have looked ridiculous, but in the hands of a Ranger it was positively deadly.

Eve posted up against the side of a building and leaned around the edge to scan with her scope. She wasn’t looking for more than a few seconds before the shield sparked from an impact. The retort of Eve’s rifle returning fire was much louder, but it was only a single shot.

{One ET down,} she sent over the IOR. {But we’ve got company.} No sooner had she said it than the whole front portions of the shield lit up from incoming fire.

<Well this sucks.> Coop scanned the area and saw hundreds of the little, Squid fuckers moving around their flanks to completely surround the SRRT. They held small, oddly-shaped weapons in their hands that seemed to fire something similar to a dart.

Currently, hundreds of those rounds were impacting Coop’s shield. He stole a quick glance at the power reading and was happy to see it still at one hundred percent. Whatever the weapons were they weren’t powerful. No sooner had he drawn that conclusion than something big impacted the front of the shield. Fire spread outward around the dome and set several nearby towers on fire. The shrieks of burning Squids filled the area.

<Well shit…this can’t get any worse can it?> The shield’s power level now read ninety-seven percent.

 

***

 

Ezekiel Mackintosh

Location: Capitol City, New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“This is a disaster!” the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth angrily brushed the table in front of him with his outstretched arms. Data chips, polyplast hardcopies, and a cup of coffee went flying.

“Sir!” Connie Price, his chief of staff, gently put a hand on his shoulder.

The conference room at the CEOC was empty except for the two of them, which was good, because Connie didn’t want anyone seeing their leader this way.

“Half a dozen systems, Connie, with over a dozen planets between them.” The PM buried his head in his hands. “Between those planets is close to eleven billion Commonwealth citizens, a hundred trillion in private, corporate, and Commonwealth property, and that doesn’t even cover our casualties.”

Word had finally filtered back to the rear areas that the Windsor’s surprise attack was over, but the results were catastrophic. The PM was lamenting over the six former Commonwealth systems that had been forcibly annexed by the Kingdom. Those were complete losses, but on top of that were the losses in people, Fleet assets, property, and diplomatic relations in the ten other systems that had been attacked and abandoned after being ravaged. System defense forces in all those systems had been completely annihilated if they decided to fight, which most did. That left all these systems defenseless to the Blockies and pirates unless the Fleet moved in. The PM had ordered High Admiral Gilmore to do just that, but these systems were only going to get a few destroyers and maybe a cruiser for the more important ones. All the systems were roughly in the same area of space, and the fleet tasked with guarding them had been seriously mauled at Queensland.

Nearly all of the Eleventh Fleet ships that had been anchored at Queensland were now combat ineffective. Almost half were nothing more than finely-dispersed debris at this point, but the rest were battered husks in need of months in the yard and new crews. The numbers were still coming in, but well over a hundred thousand soldiers and spacers had been lost, and the PM expected that number to keep going up. The High Admiral was pulling elements of the Core Worlds fleets to reinforce the destroyed anchorage and sure up diplomatic ties with the Oceanic Alliance. They’d lost nearly all of their fleet as well.

The one bit of good news was that doctrine for fighting the Windsor’s technological advantage was emerging. The Windsor’s ships were hard to kill but they could be killed. Overwhelming firepower was the key, and all focused on single targets to overwhelm their shields. At the same time, all firepower needed to go on the defensive when volleys came at the Commonwealth and allied ships. The Windsor’s range was twice as large as the Commonwealth’s latest missiles, their EW countermeasures were formidable, and the game was over if they got into energy cannon range. The tactics weren’t good, and the ratio of Commonwealth to Windsor ships destroyed was horrendous, but it did work and was able to rebuff the Windsor’s from the system. Or at least that was what Connie had the media telling the Commonwealth’s citizens. The fact was they’d probably executed a strategic withdrawal and reinforced the conquered systems.

The task force the PM sent to help at Premier Etat de Napoléon had fared a lot better because they barely engaged the enemy. They’d still lost a pair of battleships and a chunk of their escort destroyers and cruisers, but now the EU had their feathers ruffled over the losses. On top of the steaming heap of dog shit the PM had dumped on his own starfaring nation, now their alliance with the EU was frayed. That wouldn’t be good if the Blockies came calling. ADM Berg was still trying to see if the Windsor’s hit the Blockies at all, but he hadn’t heard back from her yet.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m done.” The PM slouched back into his chair. “No one is going to re-elect someone who lost systems. It doesn’t matter what the rest of my record is. This was the largest defeat the Commonwealth has ever been dealt, and it was dealt by a single-system polity. There is no recovering for me. The Eagle Party will win the remaining elections, Simmons will be the new Prime minister, and the Progressive agenda will be over for the next decade.

All Connie could do was pat Ezekiel on the back. She knew he was going to lose. There was no denying that after this attack. “You’ll still be the opposition leader, Sir. You’ll be the thorn in Simmons’ side like she is to you.”

That wasn’t much comfort, but Ezekiel would have to live with it. He only had a few months left on the job, and he’d be playing clean up the entire time. He just hoped his overtures to the Hegemony were going better than their situation at home.

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