Two Worlds – Chapter 257


Benjamin Gold

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor


<Come on!> Ben’s knuckles popped as he gripped his command chair to control his terror. <And I thought I should be worried about Jacobi.> He almost laughed, but the holo-tank showed Argo was going through another series of evasive maneuvers.


He didn’t dare speak to PO3 Lee. The young NCO was cocooned in the helmsman’s sphere of controls and data. She and Amber were keeping them from getting blown to smithereens.


Everything had gone to hell in a handbasket when Argo swung around for its second pass. They’d barely collected their data before active sensors pinged them on their approach. They’d devised their flight path based on limited movement hypothesized by Amber, but something had obviously happened to throw that hypothesis right out the window.


All of the enemy’s destroyers were fanning out around the system, and Argo nearly ran into a trio of them. Since then, it had been a game of cat and mouse. Argo’s speed and upgraded defenses were what was keeping her alive long enough to reach the FTL limit.


<So close!> Ben bit the inside of his cheek as his gunboat was rocked by an explosion.


A damage report automatically scrolled on across the side of his command terminal. Their countermeasures had caught the missile well outside effective range. Some of the sensors facing in that direction needed to recalibrate after a near hit, but that would be done in seconds.


“New enemy contact.” Amber’s voice was too calm for the situation as another angry, red icon appeared on the holo-tank.


This one was bigger and coming out of an asteroid field that had been cloaking its emissions.


“Time to the limit?” Ben asked, as he heard the strain in his own voice.


“Three minutes and twelve seconds…eleven…ten,” Amber informed.


“Time until missile range on the new contact?”


“Two minutes and seventeen seconds.”


“Flight time of those birds on maximum burn?”


“Fifty five seconds.”


<Shit.> The missiles were literally going to blow up in their face right as they transitioned out.


“Lee, fire up the Alcubierre Drive,” he made a decision.


“What, sir?” she snapped her out of her trance and the ship shuddered from a glancing energy beam.


Ben kept his eye on the shield’s power level, but was confident they’d hold together until jumping. “Alcubierre is faster than portaling. We’ll do a short jump, reorient, and then portal back to the nearest friendly system.”


“Aye, sir,” she was back to work with her hands flying across the controls.


Ben watched as the seconds ticked down until two dozen, smaller red icons burst from the cruiser closing in on them.


“Drive powering up, fifty four seconds to jump,” Aiko confirmed as the storm of death rained toward them.”


“Did the data packet get back to HQ?” Ben asked. That was the mission after all.


With the enemy ships on the move, they’d been able to get a better count than before, but that didn’t help his estimation of chances on retaking the system. There were ten percent more ships than he originally thought, and while that might only be three more ships. Three ships with shields and extended missile ranges was going to be hell for any Commonwealth ship coming into the system.


“Thirty seconds.” Amber’s voice was still annoyingly emotionless.


All Ben could do was sit back and wait for the fireworks, and at roughly the same time Argo jumped to FTL and the enemy’s salvo detonated.


The one positive that came from it all was that it took the Windsor’s ship a little bit to figure out they’d missed. The negative was that Ben and Aiko knew all too well they were leaving the SRRT team on Harper’s Junction for the duration of their mission, and that could be indefinitely if the Commonwealth decided not to retake the system.




Admiral Sonya Berg


Location: New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies              


Sonya, along with the rest of the senior admirals in the system stood patiently as the new prime minister’s yacht pulled into orbit around the massive Valley Forge Yards and detached a plethora of shuttles. The “yacht” was actually a decommissioned cruiser that had been modified for diplomatic voyages, and had recently been released from Valley Forge with a slew of new upgrades. The PM was protected by better armor, shields, longer-range missiles, and more powerful energy weapons than most of the Commonwealth fleet.


Sonya saw the irony there, and was excited to sit down with her new boss.


Unlike other governments through history, she was not worried about her job. The PM didn’t choose what officers served in what critical posts. The admirals chose those most qualified and then sent the decision to the PM for ratification. It had been nearly eighty years since a PM had failed to ratify an admiral for a priority post, and that PM had faced a vote of no confidence within the month and was out on their political ass shortly after. Politicians were supposed to provide oversight and not dig their fingers into military concepts they didn’t understand.


<Finally, a woman who knows what she’s talking about.>


The security shuttles took up protective positions as the PM’s shuttled docked with the station and disgorged its passengers. The Valley Forge Ship Yards was the largest warship facility in human space. It would have been the galaxy before coming into contact with the Hegemony, but seeing what the massive collection of species was capable of, everyone was sure Valley Forge wouldn’t even break their top fifty.


In fact, there was a massive Twig ship currently docked on the far end of the station. It was delivering the next-gen technology that human engineers would then need to fit into the new classes of warships being developed, and the older ships being retrofitted.


Sonya knew this whole meeting might be on the books as a meet and greet, but she knew the new boss better than that. This was a meeting of her war cabinet and anyone who didn’t realize that, was going to find themselves out of a job very shortly.


Sonya resisted the urge to pop a stim to keep herself focused, but instead maintained an expressionless face as the doors on the far side of the room slid open. Members of the PM’s security detail entered first, followed by the woman herself.


“Keep your seats,” she ordered before everyone could rise.


Sonya could feel the different atmosphere in the room. Mackintosh hadn’t been able to handle a room of military specialists. He might be able to win over a crowd at a rally for education reform, but the business of war was clearly outside his wheelhouse. Simmons didn’t have that same handicap.


Deja Simmons (ADM retired) didn’t cut a big, imposing figure. She was only a couple centimeters over one-sixty, with un-enhanced hazel eyes, and close-cropped black hair that looked rather plain against her dark skin. Her social pundits frequently attacked her lack of style and her preference for everything utilitarian. Those same pundits failed to realize that mindset constantly hurt them when it came to the business of government. What the people who elected Simmons to office, then to leader of the Eagle Party, and finally to Prime Minister, really cared about was that she got the job done.


Sonya watched those intelligent, hazel eyes scan the room as she took her seat and got straight down to business. “What is our status?”


The RADM in charge of Valley Forge immediately brought up holos of construction queues, refit statuses, and timelines.


“Anyway we can speed this up?” Simmons asked after a minute perusing the data.


“More money and manpower,” the RADM shrugged comically, not realizing it was serious question.


“Get me figures by the end of the day for what you need to cut these timelines in half.” Simmons turned her attention to the next senior officer on her list, and ignored the pallor that settled on the RADM’s face due to his new tasking.


“Do we have the personnel trained and ready to man the ships?” Her next question went to the ADM in charge of recruitment and training for the entire fleet.


“We’ve introduced train the trainer course with the help of our alien allies in the new systems and tech. Since we don’t have any systems to spare for actual training demos it is going to be a little touch and go how qualified our people really are in an emergency situation. We do have people thinking outside the box in terms of training techniques,” he quickly added when the PM’s face started to sour. “The classes are actually helping on the installation and learning some tips from the yard workers. We’re hoping for the best.”


“Hope for the best, plan for the worst. I want an updated training plan on my desk by the end of the week.” Simmons cut the man off at the knees, and Sonya saw his face go beet red.


That particular ADM had been in his current position for close to thirty years. He was good at his job, but he was a little pompous and complacent at times. He needed someone to light a fire under his ass every few years, and the PM had just done that.


“That gives us the ships and the people that’ll be ready to take the fight to the enemy. Where are we going to be fighting?” Simmons turned her attention to Sonya.


Unlike most of the people in this room, Sonya had a prior relationship with the new PM. Once upon a time, a lowly Lieutenant Commander Berg had served with a certain Lieutenant Commander Simmons. She’d been an assistant Intel department OIC while the PM was the ship’s marine commander. They’d fought Blockies and pirates together on the battleship CWS Dauntless in what felt like another lifetime ago.


“The Windsor’s hit us hard on multiple fronts, but in most they didn’t stick around. They induced the maximum amount of destruction before retreating and then consolidating in a handful on annexed systems.” Sonya sent the data to her former compatriot with a swipe of her finger. “We’ve had teams using the new alien tech watching these system for weeks now, and they’ve been constantly updating us with intelligence.” As if on cue, a beep announced another data dump.


“As a matter of fact…” Sonya began, then frowned as she scanned the data. “Our team from Harper’s Ferry was identified and chased out of the system. They did complete their mission and get actionable intelligence on enemy naval strength, and the infantry unit assigned to them has linked with the local rebellion and begun insurgency activities.”


“But the team was still on planet when the ship had to bug out,” Simmons finished.


While Sonya had been talking, Simmons had brought up all the available data on the annexed systems and lined them up on the holo in front of her to compare and contrast. A minute more of concentrating and she’d cut the list in half and minimized the data.


“Our boots on the ground are reporting different force types in these three systems,” she identified. “This one’s naval presence is too big,” another system’s data was minimized, “but one of these two should do.” Harper’s Ferry and one other system remained highlighted for everyone else to see. “And since we’ve abandoned our team on Harper’s Ferry that’s where we need to go first.” The PM made an executive decision on the spot, which was something Mackintosh would have needed a committee and a week to decide.


“I want an operations order hashed out and on my desk in two weeks. That’ll give the yard time to pump up production and get these ships out for their shakedown cruises.” There was more than one pale face at the PM’s demands.


“We’re going to take back our systems ladies and gentlemen.” For such a small woman, the PM could instill a lot of confidence in people. “So buckle in and get ready to work. The op tempo is about to pick up around here until we get back what is ours.”

Sonya couldn’t stop her smile from forming. The Commonwealth had been playing defense with the Windsor’s for too long. It was time to turn the tables. 

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Two Worlds – Chapter 251

Benjamin Gold

Location: Argo, Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor

<Steady…steady…> Ben couldn’t say what he was thinking out loud.

Argo’s AI was the best in human hands and PO3 Lee was a hell of a pilot. If anyone could get them through the minefield of remote sensors that were being seeded throughout the system, or the flotilla of ships in orbit and scouting the elliptic, it was them. Still, there was no shortness of chair-gripping, breath-holding moments on their approach.

The Windsor’s force in system wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t small either, and that was only what they were picking up on a distant pass. They were operating on the principle that the Windsor’s sensors as good as theirs, so they planned accordingly. The splitstream jump was made from a comfortable distance, but there was no way, even with Argo’s enhanced equipment, that they could get a good read on the Windsor’s deployment from that kind of distance. So, they made a run through the gauntlet.

Ben and Aiko had fallen into a comfortable silence over the last few hours. It was just the two of them, and they could have easily and silently communicated through their IORs, but not making a sound felt more normal. Ben had read about old, wet-navy submarines and how they’d be forced to run silent as they were hunted. Something as simple as dropping loose change on the deck could lead to the whole sub being sunk. He felt a brief comradery with those ancient warriors as Argo slinked through space.

Readings flew across the holo-tank. He could get the same info through his IOR, but he’d disabled that feature. If this ended in a fight, he didn’t think it was a good idea to have his vision obscured with data.

He tried to look on the bright side with what he was seeing. So far, they’d only spotted an oversized squadron of battlecruisers, about the same amount of cruisers, and a plethora of destroyers. There were less than thirty enemy ships in the system, but he knew it would take three of four times that many Commonwealth ships to dislodge them.

<If that’ll even do it?> He wondered.

Lee had reported some weird readings on the splitstream generator after the team had been transported to the planet. They’d received tight-beam communication from several team members that they’d been displaced upon arrival, and some members hadn’t even checked in at all. He couldn’t help but think of Jacobi, who hadn’t checked in, but he forced that worry to the back of his mind. One wrong move and he’d be a finely-dispersed cloud of matter floating in the void.

That thought held his attention for a few moments until Amber chimed in. “We’re clear,” the ship’s AI informed. “Turnover will begin in two hours and fifteen minutes. Turnover will be completed in sixteen hours and seven minutes, and it will be another seventy-seven hours for us to complete our second pass.” Their path to come at the planet from a different direction was laid out on the holo-tank.

That was the problem with surveilling planets. Planets were spheres, and with the Windsor’s own stealth tech, or their ship’s simply being on idle in orbit, even Argo’s sensors could only get a good look at no more than fifty percent of the planet at a time. It required another white-knuckled ride through the enemy space to get a full picture.

He just hoped it wasn’t any worse. It was already going to take a substantial commitment of force to dislodge the enemy from the orbitals and the planet itself. Ben didn’t know the full situation on the ground. He was supposed to get those reports during the second pass.

<And after the beating we took…> he left the thought unfinished.

He seriously doubted the fleet would commit a powerful force to commit suicide if his scouting report painted a bleak picture. They might even be holding off until some of the new tech was installed on existing warships. As most jerry-rigged attempts went, those ships wouldn’t be one hundred percent, but it was going to be a while before fully-integrated ships were in the construction queues.

All he could do was groan and strap in for the long ride back to the planet and their planned rendezvous. Hopefully, the SRRT would have better news, and Jacobi was ok.


Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Harper’s Junction, Star Kingdom of Windsor


When Coop regained consciousness he felt only a tinge of pain in his side accompanied by a whole lot of soreness. The soreness quickly receded to numbness as something was sprayed on the area and went to work.

He squinted into the bright light of the operating room and groaned. To call it an operating room was to stretch the meaning of the word. It looked like a room in an old, abandoned factory, which was scrubbed with antiseptic chemicals, and had sterile sheets laid on a table. When they carted him in, GYSGT Cunningham reassured him he had the best surgeon on the planet that was going to operate on him. Since surgery was nearly universally done by infallible machines, that could conduct a procedure precisely down to measurements so small Coop didn’t even know their names, the fact that a human was going to do the operation was a wake-up call.

Human surgeons were archaic. The modern human surgeon was more of a programmer and technician with intricate knowledge of the human body. They could go in and make on-the-spot adjustments to the machines, but by and large, machines still did the work. Human error was the cause of a large percentage of surgical deaths before technology took over and eliminated that risk.

“Take it slow.” The man, dressed all in white with gloves and a mask, instructed. “The skin grafts should hold, and the bone reconstruction is still setting. You’ll be on light duty for at least a few days while everything sets, but no combat during that time.”

<Sure, I’ll just tell the enemy I have a note from my doctor so they’ll take it easy on me,> Coop had to try really hard not to roll his eyes. The doctor might be good, but he clearly had no idea the situation Coop was in beyond medical. Tunnel vision seemed to be a thing with people who were really good in their field.

“Sure thing, Doc,” Coop stepped off the table and hid a wince as he started moving toward the door.

The surgical gown was so small it only reached the middle of his quad, left his ass hanging out, and would ride up to show off his junk if he stretched his arm over his head. So, naturally he did that the moment he got into the hallway. A few of the resistance fighters’ eyes bulged as they glanced in his direction.

“Hey, how’s it going,” he greeted them like they were in line for chow. “Do you know where the Gunney is? She’s almost as big as me and looks like she’s been chewing on a chunk of asteroid for fun.”

One of the fighters, a woman who was fiercely blushing, pointed down a hallway. “Thanks,” Coop winked at her and went for a stroll.

There were no windows in the headquarters facility, so it was clearly underground, which was why people always called insurgents and rebellions underground movements. After having been in space for longer than he preferred, Coop missed the open space he’d been trekking when he arrived. Even if that had ended with him nearly getting his ass blown off. If he had to choose between survival and living in a cave, the cave won every time.

The facility wasn’t large, which was concerning. One good strike and the whole rebellion would get taken out, including little, old Coop, but it made it easier to find the GYSGT.

<Oh…you’ve got to be shitting me!> Coop pushed through an unguarded double door and into the nexus of the command center.

Whatever the facility used to be, this was the old command room, and it was at least a century or two behind the times. Physical monitors adorned the walls instead of holo-tanks. Bundles of cords snaked around the room connecting everything. All it would take was someone tripping over something at just the wrong moment and a whole mission could go to hell in a handbasket. Coop at least expected to see someone guarding the brains of the operation, but no one even challenged his half-naked ass when he strolled right in.

“All it would take was one die-hard Windsor to blow you all straight to hell,” he didn’t even hide his contempt as his eyes swept the room.

“Who the hell are you?” A young man stepped forward.

Coop dearly hoped this guy wasn’t running the show. He didn’t look like he was out of his twenties, and looked like he should be painting tourists in a park not running a revolution. Coop could tell from twenty meters away that the guy was soft.

“Sergeant Cooper. Who the hell are you?”

“Masha Kulikov,” the man didn’t elaborate about his role.

“Cooper,” the GYSGT approached on his left. “Glad you’re up and about.”

“I feel like I took a trip through the Grinder, but nothing I can’t shake.” Coop’s eyes were still locked with Masha’s.

“Good, over here,” the GYSGT either didn’t notice the dick measuring contest going on, or just didn’t care. Coop followed her, and to his dismay, so did Masha.

Standing around a large computer display was the SGM and Sullivan. Eve, Mike, SSG Hightower, and LT Wentworth were all missing, and judging by his team member’s faces, presumed captured.

“Fuck,” Coop exhaled as he joined what was left of his team.

“Yeah, not a great day for the SRRT concept,” the SGM looked more tired than Coop had ever seen him. “But let’s get our shit together and press forward,” he gave Coop an up-down look. “Maybe you want to put on your pants for this.”

“Yeah,” Masha scoffed from where he’d taken his position next to the SGM. “While you’ve been sleeping, we’ve been planning.”

“Sorry about that,” Coop accepted the CMU’s Sullivan offered him. “Next time you take on over a hundred Windsor soldiers, with heavy weapons support and an attached mortars section, by yourself, we can compare notes and discuss how you died a quick death and I made it out alive,” Coop shot back.

Masha bristled, but didn’t have anything to say to that, which confirmed Coop’s suspicions. Even if this kid was a leader of the rebellion, he hadn’t seen much fighting, so Coop didn’t care if the guy had a few years on him. Where it counted, Coop had the experience.

“Eyes front, Cooper,” the SGM admonished him without really admonishing him. “We need to get our shit together so this’ll work.”

“What’s the op?” Coop ignored Masha and focused on a map.

“We’re going to get our people and start off this revolution with a real bang.” The SGM grinned.

Coop had never really seen the hardened NCO grin about something before, so he knew right away the Windsor’s were totally, and royally fucked.

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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 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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Bonus Chapter – Two Worlds – Chapter 230

Benjamin Gold

Location: Interdimensional Space

“This is it, people. Look alive.” Ben took a deep breath along with the rest of Argo’s bridge occupants.

Aiko was at the helm with a three hundred and sixty degree dome of navigational information flashing around her. Jacobi was on the communications station, which she’d qualified at during the transit. If their exit went terribly wrong, if this was a trap, or anything other than a perfect transition occurred, it was her job to send a QE burst back to New Washington. The Commonwealth capitol was more than ten thousand lights years away. Argo was the first human space craft to sail farther than three thousand light years from Earth, and it would likely be the only to pass the five and ten thousand mark for quite a while. They were only able to do it because of the QE beacon they were honing in on, and as far as Ben knew, the Hegemony hadn’t provided any other beacon codes. He knew they would come with time as trade and diplomacy spread. The Intergalactic relations doctor in him was extremely excited for the upcoming decades.

“Helm?” Ben knew requesting constant updates showed his nervousness, but he couldn’t help himself. They were about to emerge blindly into a solar system belonging to a race that was probably settling other worlds when humans were first learning about fire.

“Transition in three minutes, Sir.” The PO3 couldn’t quite keep the bite out of her voice.

“SRRT is locked and loaded if we run into any trouble.” Jacobi was in scales instead of her V4. Since the V4 wouldn’t fit on the bridge  she didn’t have much of a choice.

A few of the higher-ranking diplomats looked wide-eyed at Jacobi’s statement, but the Minister of Commerce waved them down. So far, she’d been an professional and courteous woman. She’d even admonished one her own staff for the small fight that had broken out during the early part of their transit. That told Ben a lot about her since most senior civilian civil servants tended to look down on the military unless they had multiple golden stripes on their CMUs. The offended, and bruised, diplomat wanted his pound of flesh and the Minister had told him diplomatically to shove it.

<Well it looks like they picked the right negotiator.> Ben had thought back then, and hoped her tact would translate into positive conversations with aliens. Of course, this was all predicated on them thinking like humans, which was never a good assumption to make.

“Commander Gold, I’m getting weird…” Amber, the ship’s new AI began before going silent.

“Shit, skipper…” Aiko swiped data over to the command holo-tank in front of him so he could see what she was seeing.

The data streaming across the screen didn’t make sense. Beyond that, it wasn’t possible. It was essentially a proximity alert in the interdimensional space used for portaling. There was no consensus on what to call this space, but things like warp space, hyperspace,  ID-Space,  and the portal zone were some of the frontrunners.

“What’s happening, Commander?” The Minister had her usual neutral expression plastered on her face, but the slight widening of her eyes showed Ben she was wondering if they were going to get to negotiate at all.

“I…” Ben started.

“Neural handshake established,” Amber interrupted and new data began to scroll across his screen.

Ben read it and breathed a tentative sigh of relief. There were two new contracts on his holo-tank that were showing a friendly green now. They were small crafts, fighters if he had to wager a guess, and they’d taken up flanking positions about five hundred meters on either side of Argo. Amber was identifying them as agents of the Hegemony’s equivalent of the Diplomatic Security Service. Their mission was to ensure the human diplomats got to the conference safely. They’d uploaded course headings for when they reached their exit portal and would accompany them until they touched down.

Ben’s relief was only momentary until his strategic mind kicked in. Not only were the Hegemony fighters able to contact them while portaling in interdimensional space, but they were able to locate them, and if someone could find and see you then they could just as easily shoot you.

<Carol and Bob left out that point when they sold us on portaling technology.> Ben wondered if the Hegemony would be able to interdict human ships that traveled in an Alcubierre Bubble, and made a mental note to discuss it with people a lot smarter than him.

The Minister, Jacobi, and Aiko were clearly just as shaken as Ben, but they kept their cool for several minutes until the static-look of interdimensional space receded to normal space.

“Oh my God.” Ben wasn’t particularly religious, but his holo-tank lit up like a Christmas tree on crack. “Amber, how many contacts am I looking at?”

“I am reading three hundred and fifty-nine thousand two hundred and three friendly contacts within our one minute light bubble.” The AI replied calmly.

Argo’s silicon brain might be taking it in stride, but Ben was dealing with information overload as more ships than he’d ever seen in the entire Solar System were suddenly within one light minute of his ship.

<And some of them are…> Ben kept his mouth from dropping when a few registered in the hundred-million ton range. He seriously hoped those were cargo ships or else any military engagement with the Hegemony would be short and not so sweet for humanity.

Through all of the traffic, Aiko followed the course provided by the fighters that exited the portal right beside them. They helped form a bubble around Argo as the gunboat continued into the heart of the system. Ben expected the traffic to be worse around the portaling points and get better the closer they got to their destination. He was right, but not by much. By the time they reached The Golden City of Luck, Happiness, Prosperity, and Servitude, Ben had counted over a million vessels traversing the system.

Ben doubted the Commonwealth had that many ships at all…and then there was the city itself. <What have we gotten ourselves into?> he wondered as they pulled into the most weirdly-lavished, over-the-top dockyard Ben would ever see.




Mark “Coop” Cooper

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


{Stand down.} The command came over their IORs. All communication that wasn’t done in-person was to be done over the IORs. The techies weren’t confident TACCOM and STRATENET would keep the more-advanced Hegemony out of their coms chatter, so they wanted to use the only Hegemony-level tech the SRRT was equipped with.

Coop was sure the people making the suggestion didn’t know how firmly their heads were shoved up their asses. If they just listened, he could have told them from firsthand experience that the Hegemony could crack their TACCOM and STRATNET encryption. Also, he didn’t think it made sense for them to rely on IORs solely either. After all, it was Hegemony tech and if someone knew of a way to get around it then it would be the Hegemony.

He felt gravitas was lent to his opinion when Argo went on high alert while still portaling to their destination. If the Hegemony could locate and interact with a ship in whatever quasi-space this was then they sure as shit could get hack into someone’s IOR. The only question was if the recipient would know what was happening.

All of this made Coop feel extra warm and fuzzy that they shot a little poop nugget into his bloodstream and put him in a coma so it could fester in his brain like a little parasite. <Another great life choice, Cooper,> he admonished himself.

When the command came down from the LT, who’d only just recently undergone the IOR procedure, the SRRT didn’t relax. They were in an alien star system, over ten thousand lightyears from home, and surrounded by threats they could identify, or even quantify. Some of the diplomats waiting in the bay were excited about reports of high-level traffic in the system. They were talking mostly about the trade implications, but Coop didn’t see it that way.

<People who have lots of shit tend to have lots of guns to protect their shit.> From the rumblings he was hearing there was a whole lot of shit in this system.

“Ok, listen up.” The SGM cut off his thoughts. “Everyone knows their jobs: Bravo close, Alpha far, stay buttoned up at all times, and call out if anything jumps out as suspicious. We’re forty-five minutes out. The ET’s have their own security accompanying us, but we’re in charge of our people. Understood?”

“Yes, Sergeant Major.”

“Good. Let’s make a good impression on our alien hosts, and maybe we’ll be invited back.” The SGM wasn’t looking for laughter and he didn’t get any.

There was only one problem. <We can’t stay buttoned up since we can’t get out of this tin can in the V4s, so we’re going to look like incompetent morons when we have to lift the suits out and armor up in front of whoever is waiting for us.>

He felt Argo settle into its final destination just as he finished disembarking his LACS.

“One small step for mankind and all that stuff,” Eve stated as she started pushing her grav-sled toward the hatch.

Coop shrugged and grinned. “Yeah, let’s try not to fall on our collective face.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 224

Benjamin Gold

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


As the van drove away, Ben was glad he wasn’t in it. Being the highest ranking officer in the SRRT he was part of all the planning sessions and put his signature right next to Jacobi’s on the training schedule. The SRRT’s chain of command was wildly unorthodox. Ben commanded the ship, and he was responsible for everyone that was on it, but the only real crew he was charged with was Petty Officer Lee. Jacobi was officially in charge of all the ground pounders, but SGM Queen was really the boss. As the LT, Jacobi still needed to sign off on everything, and the Infantry and Fleet always needed their pound of polyplast for anything that happened, so everything went on record as Ben and her being in charge.

Ben had learned long ago that reality and MTOEs didn’t always add up, and this was just the wildest example. Even above him, with everything that seemed to be happening, he wasn’t sure the chain of command was clear. Sure, he reported to RADM Stillwater as the senior Commonwealth officer on the planet, but the RADM had taken a back seat in this whole endeavor to Thomas Gold and Gold Technologies personnel. Even the Fleet engineering guys seemed to be second class citizens when it came to working on Argo and all their neat new toys.

<Speaking of new toys.> Ben looked down at his wrist to check the time.

“We need to move.” He knew it was necessary to get accountability of the whole SRRT for the day before all of this kicked off, but that didn’t mean it crunched their already limited time. “Let’s go.”

As the van containing the grunts drove off, Ben led Jacobi and Lee back toward the administration building at the center of the base. Already, all signs of the Liberation Movement’s terrorist attack had been scrubbed away. If Ben hadn’t been there himself, he would have doubted anything had occurred at all.

<And that’s the way the planetary authorities and the corporations want it,> he reminded himself.

Most of all, Thomas Gold didn’t want any reminders about the catastrophic breech of security that had led to the death of relationships he’d spent decades cultivating. Gold Technologies had probably bought and paid for the last governor’s election, now the lieutenant governor wasn’t as securely in their pocket, or was at least going to cost his father a few extra bucks, or favors, before getting in line. Ben didn’t like thinking like that, but that didn’t stop it from being the reality of the situation. When you started to get that high in the corporate and political arenas everything had an angle.

<Which brings us to today.> Ben descended the lift with Jacobi and Lee by his side to the hangar where Argo was stored.

Ben walked up to his ship and ran a hand along it. She looked pretty much the same from the outside. There were some cosmetic differences where weapons and defensive measures had been added, but she looked the same. The inside was a different matter, and that’s where they were heading.

Lee led the way up the starboard gangway and through the hatch. “Make way for the Captain!” She cleared a path through sheer personality as she walked ahead of Ben through the cramped passageways.

A normal gunboat was rated for twenty crew members: ten spacers to run and fight the ship, and ten marines to protect the ship and be deployed as needed. Today there had to be forty people on board jammed into every possible nook and cranny. Most were the heads of the various Fleet and Gold Technologies engineering teams that had been working on Argo for several months to get the new alien tech integrated and installed with its human counterparts. Ben wasn’t an engineer, but he knew that wasn’t always easy, and he couldn’t imagine how long the refit process would take for battleships when it took months to just convert a 125 meter gunboat.

<Until we get the green light to trade with the rest of the Hegemony it’s not an issue.> Ben remembered as engineers squeezed out of the way as the fiery PO3’s glared at them.

There were a few military personnel who didn’t quell at the sight of PO3 Lee, but they still respectfully moved aside from Ben. He was the skipper, and he was god on this ship.

“Captain on the bridge!” Lee called out as they emerged on the usually cramped bridge, which was now downright claustrophobic.

Thomas Gold was currently sitting in the captain’s chair and talking with RADM Stillwater. Likewise, PO3 Lee’s station at the helm was occupied by someone with a chest full of medals in the uniform of the system defense force. Ben left Lee to deal with her interloper as he pushed aside a few people to get to his chair.

“Ben!” His father was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He was practically vibrating with excitement. “She’s a beauty isn’t she?” He waved his hands around to indicate Argo.

“She’s always been a good ship,” Ben kept his face cordial, but his father was grating on his nerves. The Fleet used to be a way to get away from the Gold business empire. Now, it looked like his life had been lumped back in with his father. Worst of all, Ben knew that without his father’s intercession after the New Lancashire incident, he’d be out on his ass and in Gold Technologies’ corporate fleet. So, he literally owed his current position to his father. “Now if you can please move. I need my chair.”

“I was thinking I’d take her out.” RADM Stillwater stated.

The engineers and other civilians within earshot didn’t think much of the comment, but the military personnel froze with their mouths open in shock. A RADM might outrank a LCDR by several grades, but the captain of a ship was the captain of a ship. It went beyond tradition that the captain was in charge. It didn’t matter if High Admiral Gilmore was onboard Argo; Ben would still be in charge. For the RADM to try and take control of today’s operation was beyond bad taste. It was naval blasphemy.

So Ben felt completely comfortable in his response. “No,” he stated flatly. It helped that he’d never liked the RADM, and didn’t care if the RADM liked him. He already knew his OER was going to suck, but that was the flipside to his father’s involvement in this project: Ben was in it.

The RADM’s nostril’s flared and his face got red. The senior officer wasn’t a small man, and it looked like it had been a decade since he’d gone on a run, so he looked like an engorged cherry as he steamed and glared at Ben.

“Excuse me,” the RADM practically growled.

“Respectfully, Sir,” Ben meant absolutely zero respect as he said it, “but I’m the captain of Argo, and I will take her out to put her through her paces. If you have a problem with that we can radio fleet command and get this sorted out. We’ve got these fancy new QE communicators, so we’ll get a response soon.”

One of the great upgrades Argo had undergone was in the coms department. Normally, communications were limited to light speed with the exception of the massive QE setups on Launchers. What the new Hegemony technology allowed was an infinitely smaller piece of tech to be installed on individual ships and powered by the gluon reactors. It was going to revolutionize interstellar communications once it was mainstreamed, which Ben knew his father was going to pioneer, but at the moment it would allow Argo’s coms to reach all the way to a similar setup back on New Washington. Best of all, Ben knew what their answer would be.

“That won’t be necessary, Lieutenant Commander,” the RADM put as much disdain into the rank as he could. “I just believed a more seasoned hand would be needed for such a delicate operation…but if you insist.” The RADM backed down, and Thomas Gold got up from the captain’s chair.

His father might not understand military protocols as well as someone in the Fleet, but he noticed a power struggle when he saw one, and he smiled when he knew his son emerged victorious.

“Attention everyone!” Jacobi’s voice, pitched to address a company of grunts on a firing range, resonated on the small bridge. “Only essential personnel are allowed on the bridge now. Everyone else please find another spot and secure yourself. We’ll be setting sail in five minutes.”  She left it up to the gathered people to determine who was “essential”, and guessed correctly that they knew who could stay and go.

Ben silently thanked his foresight in bringing along the infantry LT. He knew this mission was going to be a shitshow, and as the OIC of the SRRT’s ground element, he was able to pull her away from the insertions of the Individualized Organic Router to act as the head of security for the Argo on this mission. He checked the regulations and for an out-of-system mission, without even a fraction of the crew compliment, with all the top-secret tech they had on board, a security chief was required. He couldn’t think of anyone better than the ground commander, who also happened to be his girlfriend. This was one of those instances where rank had its privileges.

After Jacobi’s announcement, everyone but Thomas Gold, RADM Stillwater, and two chief engineers left the bridge. At seven people, that still left the bridge much more cramped than during normal operations, but they would have to make do. It didn’t look like anyone else was going anywhere.

“Lieutenant, secure the ship.” Ben gave the command.

“Aye, Sir, securing the ship.” Jacobi pressed a button on her terminal and the ship’s exterior hatches sealed themselves and disappeared behind panels of a ship’s equivalent of Dragonscales that slid into place. Noticeable hatches were structural weak points for the enemy to target, so this procedure made that targeting more difficult.

The procedure also required that she walk through the ship and ensure everything, and everyone, was secured for takeoff. This was necessary for travel through atmosphere. If Argo was already in space it would be different; although, Ben ran a tight ship and things would be secured anyway. With the forty people on board today however, they didn’t want any injuries; especially when it came to all the VIPs involved. Ben just hoped Veronica Black wasn’t onboard. Jacobi wasn’t the jealous type, but he wouldn’t put it past her to “miss” something not life threatening that might fall and hit the good doctor while they punched through the turbulence of New Savannah’s sky.

“All secured,” Jacobi returned to the bridge five minutes later.

“Alert traffic control, and get us in the pattern,” Ben passed to Aiko.

She took it from there as the hanger underneath the base opened up a tunnel to release the Argo from a hidden blast door fifty kilometers away. People could theoretically be watching for the ship’s emergence, but the chance of Blockie espionage was small on New Savannah. It didn’t take them long to make the climb through the atmosphere and into space. Aiko made their speed leisurely to avoid any unwanted attention. To the copious traffic in near-orbit around New Savannah and its moons, Argo was just a gunboat going out on patrol.

“Make sure our guests don’t get restless,” Ben suggested to Jacobi.

It was the nature of space travel to be long and boring, and this wasn’t a pleasure cruise like many of their VIPs might be used to. The engineers would be busy with scanning and taking readings of everything, but the people who just wanted to be here to say they’d been part of this important moment in human history were in for a long few hours.

“We’re in the pattern, Sir. Course zero-three-five. That’ll take us out of the way and put us behind the gas giant so we can run our tests undisturbed.” Aiko informed as they settled in for a three-hour flight to their destination.

“Good work, helm. Let’s run a full set of diagnostics before we get there to make sure every system is green and that nobody broke her during the refit.” Ben ignored the glares the two engineers were giving him and got to work. It might be three hours of downtime for some, but as the skipper he had plenty to do.

The three hours flew by as they approached the point in space that had been designated as their testing site. It happened to be behind a tidally locked, huge, Jovian gas giant that shielded them from other system traffic. This was where the Commonwealth and corporations did a lot of their weapons testing they couldn’t do on the planet’s surface or the inhabited moons.

They were only five minutes out, and almost completed their deceleration when the last diagnostic came back green. “The board is green, Sir.” Aiko replied. The engineers who were scrutinizing the same data waited another twenty minutes before acknowledging that everything seemed good to go.

“All hands, it’s the time you’ve all been waiting for. Prepare to portal,” Ben announced to everyone.  There was no raucous cheering, just an exchange of excited smiles between scientific experts.

Space travel, despite its frequency, was inherently dangerous, and new types of space travel only compounded the issue. Ben had a vivid image of Argo exploding into a billion pieces as they powered up the gluon reactor to the appropriate settings. He would have been a little more comfortable if Carol was present to troubleshoot issues, but people way above his paygrade wanted this to be a completely human venture.

Ben thought that was stupid because if they failed one of the galaxy’s titans of industry, a crucial planet’s elite, many ranking military members, and little old Ben Gold would have their component atoms scattered across the cosmos.

“Reactor at one hundred percent. Everything is still green.” Jacobi announced from her terminal.

“Helm, initialize QE link with the buoy at Temperance Ending,” Ben commanded.

That was another point he didn’t agree with. Instead of portaling to a well-established system with a Launcher, the powers that be had decided that secrecy was secondary only to safety. So, for the first of mankind’s portaling trials, Argo was traveling a short seventeen light years to the sparsely populated Temperance Ending system. It was a Commonwealth system so far away from Blockie space, and so unimportant strategically, militarily, and economically that there was virtually no one watching it to see if the new transportation method worked. The Fleet had even had to drop one of its newly designed QE buoys, courtesy of Gold Technologies, for the portaling tech to even lock on to the system.

“Ready to go, Skipper.” Aiko stated after Ben seemed to hesitate for a moment too long.

“Amber, double check to coordinates.” Ben asked the upgraded artificial intelligence installed in Argo. Ben didn’t know who named it Amber, or why, but he guessed it might have been some long lost potential girlfriend of one of the software engineers. “Nothing against you, Petty Officer, but I’d rather get this one right.”

“No arguments here, Sir.” Aiko didn’t look upset at his lack of confidence in her navigation.

“Coordinates are accurate, Lieutenant Commander Gold,” Amber’s computerized voice was sure and confident to lend credence to her statement.

Since Ben was pretty sure Hegemony level AI’s were much better than humanity’s attempt at the same thing, he was good with her assurances. “Activate the drive.”

Everything up to this point had been pretty typical of humanity’s FTL travels over the last few centuries, but the portaling drive was something completely alien, and never before tested by mankind. The difference was made known once Aiko activated the drive. The old Alcubierre Drives had no transition between sublight and FTL travel. One second a ship was in normal space and the next was moving faster than light. Portaling was different. Gold light flashed as the drive opened a gateway into the interdimensional network that humanity had barely scratched the surface of.

Ben thought it was a little like a flower blossoming in fast forward as the portal opened in front of Argo. “Petty Officer?” Ben asked.

“Portal is stable, Sir.” Aiko responded, Jacobi concurred, Amber agreed, and the engineers gave thumbs up.

“Ok, take us in.” Ben gulped as Argo surged forward with a single pulse of her engines and was swallowed by the portal.

Once the ship entered, that portal folded in on itself and closed behind it in the blink of an eye. The trip to Temperance Ending, which would have taken the old Argo eighteen hours, and expended 90 percent of its exotic matter fuel, took the new Argo one hour and three minutes and barely put a dent in the gluon reactor’s power supply.

Argo and its passengers would spend days in Temperance Endings going over the results of the sixty-three minute trip, but they would all come to the same conclusion. Mankind’s travels through the stars had just changed forever, and for the better.

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