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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Two Worlds – Chapter 236

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

“I can’t believe this,” Eve fumed as she led the way back into the collection of suites the human delegation had been assigned.

“I know! What fucknut thought this was a good idea?” Coop replied just as the remainder of the room came into view.

Clustered around a holo was the SGM, Minister of Commerce, the LT, and LCDR Gold. Judging by the glare being directed at Coop, the fucknut in question was the Minister. Thankfully, Coop had people looking out for him.

“On me,” GYSGT Cunningham yanked Coop by the shoulder into the opposite room where the rest of the SRRT was huddled.

“Whew…dodged a bullet there,” Coop wiped his forehead and grinned.

“More like you’re going to take an energy cannon up the ass in the near future,” Eve replied. “That woman is one of the most powerful in the Commonwealth, and you just called her a fucknut.”

Coop took a moment to think about that and shrugged. In terms of strategic use of resources, Coop knew they couldn’t do a whole lot against him. The infantry and fleet needed people who were Splitstream capable in their SRRT teams. So far, there were not a lot of active personnel with those genetic and psychological adaptions, of those who did they needed to evaluate those that could work on a tier one team, and then they needed those people to volunteer. Out of the millions of people in the Infantry, Coop was one of a few hundred who’d joined the new project. Calling a Minister a bad name wasn’t going to get him booted off the team and onto some shit duty…he thought.

“What happened?” Mike was in the room, and it didn’t look like Bravo had been brought up to speed on the situation.

The GYSGT brought them up to speed, and Mike just shook his head. “That was stupid.”

At that moment the SGM, LT, and LCDR burst into the room; thankfully, without the Minister. “This is your WARNO.” The SGM cut straight to it. “The situation is as follows. While conducting diplomatic reconnaissance…” Coop struggled to hold in his laughter at the SGM’s description, “… one of the diplomatic team was abducted by one of the other alien races in the city. Per protocol, he activated his panic button. We had a good track on him until we lost signal here.” Instead of a holo-map of the city, the SGM pulled up a map of the planet below. “All members of the Alpha and Bravo excpet for one individual will participate in this rescue operation. Staff Sergeant Hightower, you will keep the rest of the diplomats locked down until we resolve the situation.”

If the SSG was unhappy about not participating in the operation he didn’t show it. He just said, “Yes, Sergeant Major” like a good NCO.

“Enemy forces are unknown, but we believe we’ve identified the species that took out man.” The SGM popped up to a new image, and Coop recognized the tentacle creatures from the bar earlier. “Our mission, is for Alpha and Bravo to covertly travel to the planet’s surface, recover our abducted diplomat, and make a general statement to those involved about fucking with the human race being a bad idea.” The SGM’s statement got some smiles around the table.

“Sergeant Major, would it be more diplomatic to alert the Hegemonic authorities to the abduction and request their assistance in returning the kidnapped diplomat?” Eve asked.

Coop thought it was a reasonable question. After all, why should they risk their asses to save the fucknut who got kidnapped by a group of calamari.

“That’s a no go, Sergeant,” LCDR Gold stepped forward and the SGM yielded the brief to the senior officer. “There are diplomatic agendas at work. First, we’re a new species in the Hegemony. We’re one day into the talks, and we don’t want one of our first official acts to be asking them for help. We want to be seen as a strong, independent species, and your suggestion goes against that. Second, we can’t be seen as secondary to the species that took the diplomat. Sergeant Major has more on that.”

“Thank you, Sir.” The SGM didn’t look completely thankful for his briefing being interrupted. “The species that took our diplomat, which I will refer to as the Squids from here forward, are very low on the totem pole here and throughout the Hegemony. The one thing they do have going for them is that there are trillions of them. They screw like bunnies and have spread their numbers throughout Hegemonic space. The Squids are an impatient, reckless, and impulsive species according to the data we’ve gathered on them. Most of the squids here in the city are actually slaves. Thus the servitude part of the place’s name.”

“Slaves? Didn’t slavery go out of style a thousand years ago?” Coop wondered out loud.

“No, Sergeant Cooper.” The LT replied a little more heavy handed than Coop thought was necessary. “Pirates and mercenary groups throughout the Commonwealth regularly ambush ships, take people hostage, and turn them into the modern day equivalent of slaves. There are even rumors out there about big corporations running luxury cloning operations and breeding people for physical pleasure. So, while the days of people being whipped as they built pyramids of pick cotton are gone, the practice is still very much alive.”

“Like the LT said, the Squids are victims of their own impulsive nature here.” The SGM brought the conversation back on track. “They love to gamble, and half this city it made up of the alien version of casinos. The Squids bet big, get over their head, and end up paying back the casino owners with their freedom. From what we’ve found out, as delegates we’re living in luxury up in this rarified atmosphere, but most of the Squids reside in the seedy underbelly. Whoever took our diplomat lives down on the planet, which isn’t much more than housing and the necessary suppliers to keep the indentured Squids, and other species who get in over their heads, alive.

“Well,” Coop shrugged. “I would have thought a millennia’s-old galactic collective would be a little more civilized, but who am I to judge. How are we going to kill these fuckers and get out of here clean?” Coop wondered.

“Law enforcement’s patrols of the area where we lost our diplomat’s signal are very infrequent, so we should be able to get in and out without being noticed by the authorities. To put it bluntly, it’s a bad neighborhood.” The SGM replied.

{Brings back memories doesn’t it?} Coop sent Mike a message over his IOR and got an affirmative response.

“Everyone needs to make their way back to Argo so we can finish going over the execution details and depart for the mission,” the SGM powered down the holo and started to move.

“Sergeant Major, don’t you think our hosts will spot our ship leaving? That is going to bring unwanted attention to the mission,” Coop tossed out the flaw he immediately saw in the SGM’s plan.

“Who said we’re taking the ship down, Sergeant.” The SGM didn’t even look back, but Coop could tell he was grinning. Coop didn’t like where this was heading.

Half an hour later Coop was geared up and ready to kick some ass. The team wasn’t taking any chances. They had no idea what they were walking into, and they had no idea of the technological level of the enemy they were about to face.  Just because the Squids were peons in the eyes of other Hegemony species didn’t mean they wouldn’t have weapons that could tear a hole through a LACS. The SGM didn’t want to take any chances.

Coop ran the diagnostic and checked the safety on his Buss for the second time. Usually, he was a one and done type of guy, but the amount of unknowns in this situation didn’t sit well with him. The SGM undoubtedly felt everyone was feeling the same way, so he was compensating for that fear by issuing more grenades to everyone and authorizing the team leaders to ensure some of their team had some real bang bang in their arsenal. Since Coop was in the V4As, that meant he was loading up the LACS’ compliment of seventy artillery shells. The only thing he wasn’t being loaded with was anti-matter ordinance. Setting one of those off would alert the authorities that something wasn’t quite right. Still, Coop had enough thermobaric rounds to turn a small city into a burning husk, and that made him feel a little better.

<Of course, they didn’t help against the Windsor’s.> He remembered the high explosive weapon’s lack of effectiveness against the Kingdom’s massive, armored mechs.

Coop looked at his shield’s readings again to make sure he was one hundred percent good to go. He was, and so was the rest of his team. Everything seemed good to go.

“Coms check,” the SGM stated over TACCOM.

{Coms check,} he reiterated over their IORs.

“Everyone listen up. We’re going to drop here.” A holo of the area they would be dropping into appeared in front of them. “We’ll set up a perimeter, regain our bearings, and then move forward to the diplomat’s last known location here.” He pointed at an area two hundred meters away. “Intel from the Minsters team suggests that the panic button might still be transmitting, but it’s jammed. If we can get close enough then we should be able to pick it up again.”

<That would be lucky of us.> Coop didn’t plan on it being that easy.

The SGM pulled the team leaders aside to take a look at everything. The SGM would be in command of Alpha with the GYSGT in the number two slot, while the LT handled Bravo. SSG Hightower was back with the diplomats, and Coop was sure the big man was pissed. This was the first offensive action against ETs the Commonwealth was going to engage in. Sure, it amounted to engaging their version of PHA Rats, but first was first, and the SSG was missing out.

Coop patted his armor to ensure the grenades were easily accessible and pondered what to arm his Buss with first. Coming out rapid firing 40mm grenades sounded like the best option, but he was sure he’d catch hell for blowing up some poor squid’s fish tank. Instead, he’d opted for 3mm plasma-tipped rounds. They’d still get the job done, and they’d eat at a shield’s energy faster than regular rounds. Coop wasn’t looking forward to going up against a shielding enemy again, but at least this time he was shielded too; twice shielded in fact. Coop was also assigned to carry an area shield which was provide an extra layer of protection for up to twenty-five meters around the team. Mike was carrying another one for Bravo, so if they kept their spacing right they’d give the team an extra bubble of protection.

The downside was the thing was fucking heavy on top of his LACS and all the other crap he was carrying. The V4A was supposed to be the pack mule of the SRRT team, but that didn’t mean it didn’t suck, in fact, the more Coop thought about it the bigger the target he’d be.

<Too late now.> He thought as the SGM waved them forward. The SRRT hunched over, shuffled, and squeezed sideways through Argo’s corridors until they reached one of the off-limit’s areas. LCDR Gold was there waiting for them to scan his GIC and put in a code.

The heavy blast doors opened up to reveal a spacious area…probably the most spacious area on the entire ship. Since Coop had spent three weeks stuffed into infantry country with a bunch of puffed-up bureaucrats, seeing this much empty space didn’t improve his mood. In the center of the empty space were four sets of circles. They were a gleaming silver, slightly raised from the floor, slightly extended from the ceiling, and big enough for a man in a V4A LACS to stand on.

Once Coop caught sight of them he felt his sphincter involuntarily pucker. He knew what these were, and the rest of the SGM’s plan fell into place. The SRRT team was going to live up to its name today. They were going to use splitstream tech for the very first time as far as Coop knew.

<And we’re going to do it on a combat jump into enemy territory to rescue a diplomatic fucknugget. You couldn’t make up this shit.>

“Alpha team onto your launch pads.” The SGM led the way by stepping up onto the nearest dais. Coop gulped and picked one at the back.

LCDR Gold and Aiko took their places at the controls and started pressing buttons and flicking switches. A lot of stuff was being pushed and flicked, so much that Coop hoped they didn’t mess up some sequence and turn him inside out in the process.

“Launching in twenty seconds,” Gold started to countdown while Aiko watched her screen.

She looked up for a second at Coop, but her expression was neutral. He took that as a good thing. One indication either way meant something was wrong or the tech wasn’t going to work on purpose. It was a dark thought, but Coop knew Aiko was capable of doing some harsh shit. Four SRRT members being obliterated in a failed splitstream launch would be easy for her to walk away from even with an investigation.

<Stop it.> Coop chided himself when Gold reached five. <Get your head in the game.>

“…two…one…initiate.” The LCDR did something and Coop’s whole body went numb.

It only lasted for a fraction of a second before feeling returned. Too much feeling. Coop felt like someone had wound up and punted him right in the nards. He immediately started to puke. Through sheer force of will he was able to stop it from spewing out of his mouth, but swallowing it only made him gag more. The only thing that got him through this was not wanting to have puke on his HUD, and that acidic stench in his nose through the whole mission.

“Ok,” the SGM’s voice told Coop that even the NCOIC wasn’t immune to the cosmic forces at work. “Give me three-sixty security and secure the site for Bravo.”

Coop did what he was told while looking around. The area they were in made the PHA look nice. The place was a fucking pigsty. Coop quickly checked the air to see it was barely habitable for humans. There was a lot of sulfur in the atmosphere, so if Coop ever had to take his suit off the whole world would smell like farts.

Coop was looking outward when Bravo arrived. One second his IOR showed them out of range up in the floating city above them, and the next it registered them inside the perimeter Alpha had established. It was creepy, and totally revolutionized warfare. Coop didn’t have time to contemplate the greater strategic picture. He focused on the mission and scanned his sector of fire.

It took thirty seconds for Bravo to get their shit together before the SGM called out the order of march. “Alpha followed by Bravo… bounding overwatch…go.”

An icon appeared on Coop’s HUD showing where the SGM wanted him to go, and he started to move toward it while Bravo covered them. Coop made it about five meters when the whole world suddenly went black.

“What the fuck!” he yelled. He was still conscious, but his LACS had gone dark.

{What the fuck!} he repeated over his IOR, but just like with TACCOM he got nothing.

“Shit,” he whispered to himself before something impacted the side of his LACS hard enough to tip it over.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 234

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“I can get used to this,” Coop made the statement out loud.

He was standing in front of a window that looked out on a spectacular view. The top half was the blackness of space complete with the pinpoints of stars. The bottom portion showed the white clouds, blue seas, and green landmasses of the planet below them. Coop was also in an excellent position to see the planet change from day to night. He could see the light from the system’s yellow dwarf star slowly creeping along the surface, while still catching the breathtaking amount of lights on the night-side. The planet was clearly heavily populated, but the human delegation wouldn’t be going down during this visit.

The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude never touched the planet’s surface. It was suspended in the thermosphere where the atmosphere met space and was held aloft by giant grav drives, or at least that’s what Coop believed. He wasn’t going to see the workings of the city. He did see some supply umbilicals arching down to the surface, but other than that the thing could run on magic for all he knew.

{I still find that creepy.} Eve’s voice sounded in his head as she maintained communication’s discipline.

She was referring to the window itself. They’d learned that the Hegemony used force fields as part of its architectural designs. The room they were in was opulently decorated, but for all intents and purposes open to space except for a centimeter of energy. Coop felt ok because he was still in his LACS, but he’d never be able to sleep in here.

{Cooper, is your section clear?} GYSGT Cunningham asked from the opposite side of the spacious suite.

Coop wasn’t here sightseeing or settling in. He had a scanning wand in his hand and was supposed to be going over the place for bugs. Not the bed bugs that seemed to infest everything back during Coop’s childhood in the PHA, but surveillance tech. Since the Hegemony was obviously more advanced than humanity, Coop wasn’t sure they were going to find anything even with the wands turned up to maximum sensitivity. All that really meant was Coop’s job was ten times more difficult when the wand beeped a warning every time it picked up anything. It could have been the exotic particles from the previous occupant’s farts for all Coop knew. Still, he remained diligent in the hopes the SGM would be able to let them do a little scouting of the city when the diplomats were buttoned up tight for the night.

{We’re good here, Gunney,} Coop replied as he scanned his last flagged space with his LACS sensors on top of the wand to ensure it was secure.

Alpha Team was securing the teams quarters while Bravo Team was off with the delegation at a meet and greet, orientation, or happy hour. Coop really wasn’t sure. The Stormbreakers had universal communicators, but they were only universal as much as they were used with previously explored species. The devices that sat on the jellyfish-like portion of the ET’s anatomy got the basics of English Standard, but none of the nuances. That made communication difficult. Add to that, that much of human communication was nonverbal, and you had an issue even if the ETs understood the words.

<Not my problem,> Coop thought as he returned the wand to the equipment bracket they’d brought with them.

{Nwo what, Gunney?} Coop didn’t want to sit on his ass when here was an alien space city to explore.

{Now we wait and ensure no one infiltrates these rooms until the delegation returns.}

Coop tried really hard to hide his disappointment. <Hurry up and wait it is.> The concept was as old as the military itself, and now that Coop thought about it, probably as old as the Hegemony. He was sure, somewhere out there, that an alien grunt had just been rushed to complete a job only to have to sit on his gelatinous ass for hours after finishing.

Thankfully, it wasn’t hours for Coop. Thirty-seven minutes later, according to the internal chronometer his IOR provided him, the delegation returned. They were buzzing like a bunch of high school girls who’d just learned the cheer captain had been knocked up by the star quarterback. They didn’t even bother to acknowledge the armored soldiers around them as they set about unpacking all of their crap.

Coop couldn’t help but notice a lot of it was expensive clothing. <Like a floating jellyfish cares what quality smartcloth you’re wearing.> Coop rolled his eyes and was thankful no one could see him.

After a minute, Mike lumbered over and took up a guard position five meters from Coop. It wasn’t close enough to talk face-to-face without being heard, but they could have a private IOR chat. Coop had been playing around with the IOR’s organic version of settings, and was pretty sure he’d found out how to stop his duly appointed NCOs and Officers from listening in on him all the time. This was as good of a time as any to test it.

First off, he didn’t just acknowledge Mike in his mind’s eyes and start talking. He pinged him with a request to talk. The request had a privacy subroutine built into it similar to what Coop had done with his LACS back on New Lancashire. If the GYSGT or SGM wanted to listen in, they’d hear a different conversation than what was actually being spoken. Coop was pretty sure they’d figure out it was a ruse sooner or later, so his next project was figuring out how he could track who was in a conversation, but it would have to do for now.

Coop could hear the confusion in Mike’s thoughts when he accepted the invite to chat. {What are you doing?}

{Just testing something out. So, what did the diplomats talk about?}

{It was an introductory meeting. Not everyone was there, but a few representatives were present. There were two Twigs there than seem to be Bob and Carol’s supervisors. They were interested in their subordinates performance and future trade contracts. There was something that looked like a cloud of bugs that didn’t speak to us at all, but watched us closely. There were more Stormbreakers there seeking introductions, along with a new ET that looked like someone pumped steroids into a Jack Russel Terrier.} Coop felt Mike’s mental shrug at the last bit of info. Apparently, neither of them knew who this Jack Terrier was. {The diplomats were pretty psyched about the Terrier things. They kept talking about sperm or spermia-something. Apparently, scientists back home had stopped believing in it, but the Terriers give it a fighting chance.}

Coop had no more idea about this than Mike, so he made a command decision and brought in a smarter third party. {What are you up to, Coop?}  Eve accepted the invite with trepidation, but listened as Coop brought her up to speed.

{They’re talking about panspermia; it’s a theory that the building blocks of life were distributed throughout the universe by space dust, meteorites, asteroids, comets, or even ancient spacecraft. Many think that because these things would have a common origin; especially if microbes were being transferred from spaceships to new planets, that lifeforms would be somewhat similar. Since our only contact with sentient aliens has been the Twigs, that has thrown that hypothesis into doubt. They’re nothing like us or anything on Earth. Sure, the might have a tree-like appearance, but aside from that every part of their physiology is vastly different from any Earth species. The Stormbreakers are even more different from us than the Twigs. So, the diplomats are probably psyched because this new species they were introduced to seems to have characteristics similar to Old Earth’s dogs.}

{I thought Jack Russel Terrier was a pre-expansion holo star?} Mike stated.  

Coop could feel Eve roll her eyes, so he asked Mike to send him an image of the new species. It took a second for Coop to walk Mike through how to retrieve an image from his IORs data storage, which was essentially pulling the image from his memory and attaching it to an email, but he got it. Coop also queried his IOR’s default library to find images of a Jack Russel Terrier and put the images side by side. The resemblance was only passing.

The image on the left, from an old Earth picture of the dog, showed a small, happy creature. It couldn’t be more than thirty centimeters tall, and if that thing weight eight kilos soaking wet Coop would fork over half a month’s pay. The picture on the right was much more menacing. The face was more angular than the dog’s, with a thin coat of fine hair ranging from white to dark brown. The picture Mike sent Coop showed the ET’s mouth open and some not-so-friendly chompers. The ETs had clearly evolved as predators and had retained sharp teeth capable of tearing and sawing flesh.

They were also much bigger than the Earth dog. The IOR computed that the largest of them was one-point-six meters tall, which made them slightly smaller than the average human, but they looked much more muscular. They were rocking a bit of a hunchback, which Coop guessed was because their ancestors moved around on four legs. There equivalent of arms were disproportionally long, were equipped with four clawed digits, one of which was twice the size of the others, and another smaller with opposable characteristics to wield tools.

Even more interesting to Coop were their clothes. It looked like a mesh material that fit somewhere between armor and formal attire. If it was formal attire than it was just a style thing, but if it was armor then they were definitely militaristic. The only other people they’d seen in armor so far were his SRRT team. Coop wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

To alleviate the primal itch Coop got in the back of his brain that said “predator” whenever he looked at the new ETs, he decided to call them something harmless. If you said something enough times, even if it wasn’t true, you could start to believe it.

{I don’t want to be fighting the Puppies anytime soon judging by those claws.} Coop heard Mike laugh and felt Eve roll her eyes at his nickname for the smaller predators.

{That’s not even the best part,} Mike continued. {From what the diplomats were discussing the Stormbreakers are the aliens who developed the bioseeds and are going to be going through the Commonwealth and licensing the hardware and software for commercial use.}

{It makes sense.} Eve stated. {The Strombreakers have to communicate someway and I haven’t seen any eyes or mouths on them. My guess is some type of electromagnetic sensitivity that lets them project stuff as subtle as brain waves or as powerful as lightening.}

{Why are you a grunt again?} Coop asked. {That’s some science shit right there, Sergeant. Maybe you should put on a lab coat and join the other team.}

{Fuck you, Coop. Anyone can study these things. Not everyone can kill them if we need to.} Eve had a point there.

{Everyone listen up,} the SGM cut off the rest of the conversation. {The diplomats have a dinner with the Hegemony representatives and then a tour. Alpha will stay with the diplomats. Bravo will secure the room and recon.}

<Yes! About time.> Coop almost jinxed himself, but the SGM took pity on him. The LT was going to lead the security detachment. The GYSGT was going to remain with all the gear along with LCDR Gold and Aiko, while Coop, Eve, and the SGM took a look around.

Coop didn’t even consider why the SGM had chosen him, but he was sure it wasn’t for his good looks.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 228

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Argo had changed. Coop recognized that the minute they got on board. He didn’t have too much time to explore right away because they had to lug all of their gear onto the gunboat, and whoever had assigned this mission wanted the SRRT to have everything at their disposal. Getting the weapons, now-obsolete coms, and little gadgets designed just for the team’s special mission needs was easy, but the V4’s were not designed to fit in the ship. It was the first design flaw, and from Coop’s perspective a major oversight. The LCDR ended up getting involved and the brass had to come down and take a look.

“Well shit,” the industrial titan deadpanned. “You think you’ve thought of everything and then you realize you’ve missed something big.” He shook his head, but couldn’t stop from chuckling. “We can’t fix it now, but we’ll do a refit when you return from this mission. What we need is a way to get the LACS on the ship. Any suggestions?”

“Yeah, have someone from the Infantry present in your design sessions next time.” Coop muttered to Mike. Who simply nodded his agreement.

Coop’s big friend was out of the hospital and back on the team. Coop didn’t think he was one hundred percent yet, maybe eighty-five percent, but the big guy still wasn’t back to normal. Coop noticed Mike would jump a little if he didn’t know you were there and started talking to him. Coop hoped the big guy’s situational awareness improved because that was key in combat.

Coop knew this was his friend’s first time being wounded in combat. He’d done several operations back with the 2222nd, and in RADM Nelson’s strike force that successfully pushed back the Blockies before being forced to withdraw by the Windsor’s. He’d even made it through the terrorist attack and follow-up operations without a scratch, while Coop got part of his arm melted off by flaming chaff. Mike needed to know that getting injured was part of the lifestyle he was living, but the other half of that coin was top-of-the-line healthcare. Coop could attest to that. He had a brand new leg, and his arm looked fine aside from the growing hair trying to catch up with the rest of him. Coop made a mental note to talk to his friend about his experiences.

In the end, it was the ground pounders that came up with the simple solution to turn the LACS horizontal and load them that way. It worked, but at a cost. The grav-lifts that were designed to move the suits couldn’t maintain their fields when half the suit was in the ship and half wasn’t. That mean that not only was it the infantry who came up with the simple solution, but it was the grunts that got to physically lift the suits into the ship and onto the waiting grav-sleds. Combined with their own size and bulk, it meant only two could make the lift at a time. Since Coop permanently seemed to be on someone’s shit list he got to do it.

He quickly found out that running around in a LACS and being forced to lift it with just his arms and shoulders was completely different. By the time they’d got the team’s suits onboard his CMUs were drenched in sweat, but he still had a long time to go before he could hit the head.

The first big change Coop noticed about Argo was that engineering was bigger now. Coop imagined it took up ten percent more space than before, and instead of a normal hatch, a high-security door blocked their path. If the ship took a hit from a missile this door looked like it would survive. To make matters even more frustrating only the navy crew had access to the engineering space. Since Coop wasn’t going to dig his grave any deeper with Aiko, he resigned himself to never getting to see the new gear back there.

The next part, which was unexpected and unwanted, were the changes to grunt country. Argo’s space for her infantry component was now an open squad bay format. The V4 LACS were back in the armory, which was thankfully bigger to accommodate them, but there was still the issue of their height. The new suits were several centimeters too big, so they had to fold the neck and head area down at a ninety-degree angle to get them in the charger. They looked like slumbering, metal giants who were going to wake up with a serious crick in their necks.

“We’re going to be stuffed soup to nuts in here,” the GYSGT commented at the more-than-normal number of cots. At least twenty people would be sleeping back here.

Coop’s face brightened up, and he opened his mouth at the perfect setup, but Eve beat him to it. “If you say anything about your nuts being near peoples’ faces I’m going to cut them off.”

“You’ve been telling me that since I met you and they’re still here,” Coop grabbed his cojones and the team laughed. They laughed even harder when Eve’s hands blurred to produce her combat knife, which she then mimed slicing off Coop’s dick. It was a good way to embrace the suck that the cramped quarters was going to produce, but just to be safe, Coop made sure his bed kept his junk away from Eve.

The other section of grunt country was the VR simulator, which was the same size. That surprised Coop, because he believed with the reduced crew compliment that the gunboat would put more effort into the needs of the SRRT. After all, the ship’s mission was to ferry them around. From what he could tell, weapons systems hadn’t changed from what he remembered, so where was the extra space. He took a stroll into navy country and saw that their stuff was cut down too. There used to be state rooms for the skipper, XO, NCOIC, and the infantry detachment commander. Now, Coop just saw two rooms with LCDR and LT Wentworth’s names on them. The space occupied by the former two rooms, and a considerable more amount of space, comprised another compartment with another high-security door. At that door, a big man in a Gold Technologies security uniform stood guard. He had a sidearm at his side and didn’t look like he was going to budge for anyone.

<What the fuck?> Coop didn’t test the man, but made a note to tell the SGM. <This is a navy boat. If anyone needs to guard shit it’s supposed to be us not some Corpie.>

When all was said and done, Coop didn’t like the changes he saw. There were too many places the majority of the crew couldn’t go, it wasn’t set up for the new combat suits despite months in the top-secret facility for refit, and their first mission was a sensitive diplomatic one where the people who were supposed to be sensitive and diplomatic would be treated like sardines for the length of transit.

No one on board was briefed about the length of their trip until they arrived on Thurgood Station. It had only taken the upgraded gunboat two days to get there, which Coop could get used to. He’d read the star chart and knew that they had an advantageous route to the Rim system, but it was still impressive. He’d been a little nervous to do the whole portaling bit, but it turned out to be no different than traveling by Alcubierre Drive.

Those two days went pretty well…then the second half of their party arrived. Coop and the rest of the SRRT new quarters were cramped. They didn’t like it, but they accepted it. Apparently, cramped to a soldier was equivalent to unacceptable for a civilian. When the Minister’s entourage saw the space they immediately complained to their boss. The Minister’s eyebrows climbed into her hairline when she saw how cramped it was. LCDR Gold had already given up his cabin to her, and LT Wentworth was moved back to the bay as a result.

“Lieutenant Commander,” the Minister’s voice was calm but firm. “This situation is unacceptable. We’re people not cattle. We can’t travel like this. Our voyage is three weeks one way, and we’re going to have serious morale problems.”

Coop was using his better-than-average hearing to eavesdrop on the conversation, and his jaw dropped at the new information. Sure he’d seen the two darts on a star chart back in New Savannah, but there was a difference between seeing the distance and hearing how long it would take to get there; especially since they’d gone from the end of the Core to the Rim in two days.

Coop looked around and saw a similar expression on Eve’s face. They caught each other’s eyes and shared a brief mental conversation that consisted of two words…<Fuck me.> Because despite the Minister’s urgings, there was nothing the LCDR could do. Limited space was limited space, and no matter what way you looked at it you couldn’t change it.

The crew and guests of the Argo set off after a one-day resupply layover at Thurgood Station. Morale wasn’t great to start and they went a total of two days before someone finally snapped.

It was twenty-one hundred and everyone was settling in for another restless night of sleep. Truthfully, the soldiers were sleeping better than the civilians. They had the necessary experience and claimed the good bunks already, plus they were able to naturally sleep through the snores, farts, and general racket of a ship in transit. The civilians were used to comfy, body-conforming, nano-laced beds in quiet homes on New Washington, but they weren’t stupid. They quickly figured out the soldiers had picked the best spots, but they attributed their restless sleep more to that than the soldiers’ increased ability to sleep whenever and wherever possible.

Coop had just put his hands behind his head and was drifting off to the rhythmic hullabaloo of some hydraulic system nearby when it happened.

“Ok, that’s enough!” Coop recognized the voice as one of the senior delegation members. He was an older man, with blue in his eyes, salt and pepper hair, and who obviously thought he was hot shit. Despite that, Coop couldn’t remember the guy’s name for the life of him. “I’ve had it up to here with this bullshit. You! Switch bunks with me.”

Coop didn’t open his eyes and awaited the coming argument. He’d kept a low profile so far and he was determined to keep that up. He was on good terms with Eve, Aiko didn’t glare at him every time they passed in the corridors, and he was on an all-inclusive vacation courtesy of the Commonwealth military to a place referred to as The Golden City. He’d decided to look at the glass as half full.

“Hello! I’m talking to you!” It was the spittle hitting Coop’s face that made him groan and open his eyes. The diplomat was standing over Coop. His face was beat-red and a purple vein was throbbing in his forehead.

“Excuse me?” Coop answered politely.

“You heard me. I’m ordering you to switch with me!”

“Sorry, but no,” Coop replied.

If steam could come out of a person’s ears this diplomat would look like one of those old riverboats Coop saw in period dramas on the holo.

“That’s not a suggestion pri…lie…soldier.” The man’s sputtering made it clear he couldn’t identify the three chevrons of a sergeant on Coop’s CMUs. Internally, Coop wept for the success of this mission. “Do you know what my military-equivalent rank is?” It was a rhetorical question because the man screamed the answer half a second later. “Captain! I am the equivalent of an infantry Captain. They command divisions of a hundred thousand soldiers like you. So get out of the bed and switch with me now!”

Coop tried his best, but he couldn’t stop himself from laughing, which only made the situation ten times worse.

“Get on your fucking feet! NOW!” The man screamed, and Coop though he was going to have a stroke right then and there.

Coop looked around for backup, but the SGM, GYSGT, SSG Hightower, and LT were all at some briefing on the bridge. Eve was there, but she was already asleep, and sleeping right through all of this.

<Thanks for that.> Coop sighed and got to his feet determined to take the high road. He saw Mike watching as he did.

“Respectfully, Sir, you need to return to your bed,” Coop was calm and collected. The diplomat was tall and thin, but Coop easily dwarfed him. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the man.

“No! You need to get out of my face and let me get some sleep in my new bed.” The man punctuated the statement by giving Coop a two-handed shove. Coop didn’t even move, but the man stumbled backward. “I’m warning you kid. I will ruin your life. Your career is going to be over. I will make it my personal mission in life to ensure you can’t get a job selling hot dogs at a hover food truck.”

“Sir, do not put your hands on my person again.” Coop answered respectively, but firmly. “Please return to your bunk and try to get some sleep. It will help this situation.”

Instead the man gave Coop another push which had the same result as the first time. “GET OUT OF MY WAY!” The man had well and truly lost it.

Eve was starting to wake up now, and was immediately alert and assessing the situation.

“This is your second warning, Sir. Do not place your hands on me again.” Coop couldn’t stop from sounding bored at this point, and that seemed to push the diplomat over the edge.

The man cocked back a fist and threw it right at Coop’s face. Blockies on the other side of space saw how much the guy telegraphed his move, and Coop was easily able to dodge it. The man fell forward off balance and over extended, so Coop brought up his knee into the guy’s diaphragm to keep him from falling over. The result was the guy getting the wind knocked out of him, a bruised rib, collapsing to the floor, and being completely humiliated in front of his underlings in the bay.

So naturally he yelled some threats after he was able to catch his breath and went off the fetch mommy to fight his battles for him. Coop didn’t give two shits. The guy was an asshole, he’d instigated this, he threw the first, second, and third punches, so Coop knew the LCDR would have his back. Plus, if this was the diplomat the Commonwealth was sending to negotiate with the aliens then Coop was way more fucked then he would be for whatever charge they would trump up against him.

When he caught Eve’s eye he just shrugged. {I tried.}

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