Two Worlds – Chapter 184

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Argo, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Ben didn’t think he was a slouch. Mentally and physically he was superior to most humans. The Gold genetic structure was the result of billions of dollars and decades of tweaking. He’d achieved a Ph.D. from one of the most respected schools in the galaxy in a difficult subject. He’d trained for nearly two decades in the fencing schools of New York, and that was only before he joined the Fleet. Now, he’d seen combat. Not only from the bridge of his gunboat, but on the ground as well. He’d been tortured by a maniacal pirate, he’d killed a man up close, shot several from a distance, and gone up with CPL Cooper against a small army of people who wanted to ransom him to the highest bidder. Despite his life of privilege, Ben had seen his share of adversity, and he believed that made him stronger.

As he sat on Argo’s bridge and studied the holo-tank he tried not to shit himself. No amount of steeling oneself could prepare them for what was bearing down on New Lancashire.

The Kingdom’s squadron wasn’t huge, in fact, it was small compared to some of the fleets Ben had seen, but he’d seen firsthand that size wasn’t everything. When a simple cruiser could wreak havoc on an entire task force, he shuddered to think what the squadron was capable of doing.

The information he was seeing was still several minutes out of date as Argo continued to burn at maximum speed toward the planet, but the assault carrier’s CIC had positive ID on the incoming bogies. They were advancing in a wedge formation. Leading that wedge were two dreadnaughts. One was HMS Francis Drake which had rendezvoused with the squadron when they entered the system. The other was unidentified, but its nearly two-kilometer hull clearly identified it as another ship of the wall. The only thing bigger on the Commonwealth side was Abe, but the old assault carrier easily had a few decades on these vessels.

Flaring out behind each dreadnaught were a pair of cruisers and a trio of destroyers – all bigger than their Commonwealth counterparts – for a total of twelve warships. <The two dreadnaughts could wipe us out.> Ben knew the truth. He just hoped the RADM and his staff would see the sensor footage and see reason.

There was no way to fight the approaching squadron, and that wasn’t even taking into consideration the biggest piece on the board. In the center of the wedge, spanning eight kilometers was the second biggest warship Ben had ever seen. The first was the oddly shaped behemoth idling close to the planet, but no one was telling him anything about the oddly-shaped vessel.

The Kingdom’s vessel sailing in the middle of the wedge wasn’t hiding its identity either. It was a big, brazen middle finger to the Commonwealth Fleet in the system. All the ships Ben had seen up to this point were named after important figures in their history. It made sense with their traditional culture, but it seemed with this new class of ship they were going back farther. They wanted something older, more powerful, and with an identity that spanned humanity’s memory. Not just the old UK.

“SD-06 HYPERION,” LT Briggs read the ID off the holo-tank that the ship was broadcasting. “What’s that?”

“Hyperion was the Titan of heavenly light who ruled before the old gods,” Ben explained. “He was one of the twelve children of the Earth and Heaven. He fathered the Sun, the Moon, and Dawn.” Ben pulled from his old classics classes back in undergrad. “If I had to guess, the SD stands for Superdreadnought,” he added.

It certainly looked like a ship worthy of the name. Its eight kilometers were sleek and beautiful in a deadly way. It had more shape than the standard cigar configuration common in Kingdom ships. Ben guessed the gently-sloping bulges on the hull held concealed railguns or energy cannons.  Unlike the dreadnaughts, it didn’t have a rotating external hull, but judging from the size of the thing it didn’t need the extra layer of protection. Long range sensors were still picking up the electronic signatures of repair nanites scurrying across its massive hull, but the most interesting facet of the whole ship was the last half kilometer. It narrowed and jutted forward like a blade. It reminded Ben of a sword fish his father had caught on vacation deep sea fishing on Disney World. Despite its menacing appearance, Ben wondered about its utility.

<Engagements start at eight million kilometers and move inward from there. Rarely do they reach distances where a half-kilometer battering ram would be needed. It looks specifically built to crush other vessels.> Ben gulped. After the paradigm shift he’d seen in naval warfare back in the Hahn System, this new ship design didn’t give him the warm and fuzzies.

“Get me the Rear Admiral,” Ben ordered. He needed to convince the RADM to save his people, and if possible, as many settlers of New Lancashire as possible.

The communication’s lag was still a couple of minutes, but within ten the RADM’s calm demeanor appeared on the holo. “Commander Gold,” the way he said the word didn’t bode well for Ben. “What is the status of the task force?”

“Destroyed or crippled, Sir.” Ben’s words rushed together. He needed to get through this portion and start to convince the RADM to evacuate the system. “Half the task force was destroyed and the other half was scrambling for the FTL limit when we transitioned. Captain Jacobson ordered me to pass the word on to you what had occurred so you could be prepared.”

“It’s a little too late for that.” The RADM’s face looked grim for a second before he replaced it with cool professionalism. “Thank you for the report, Lieutenant Commander. I will be sending Argo orders to be on our flank as we engage the enemy and harass some of lighter vessels on the edge of their wedge formation.”

“Sir, that’s a horrible idea.” Ben couldn’t stop the words from slipping out of his mouth, and the chatter on Argo’s bridge ceased immediately. Anger flashed across the RADM’s face, and this time it stayed there. “Sir,” Ben tried to remain respectful, “I’ve seen what one cruiser could do to a task force nearly ten times its weight. I’ve sent you the sensor footage of the battle. We only have one option here.”

“I watched that footage, Lieutenant Commander. What it showed me was a small, capable cruiser that had the drop on an unsuspecting force. Their weapons are formidable, but when you get caught with your pants down a pea shooter is pretty effective. I will not give this system over to backstabbing traitors. This is the capitol of our Commonwealth in the York Sector. We will not just let them take it without a fight.”

<He’s right there.> Ben thought. <There isn’t going to be much of a fight. The Kingdom is going to hit us and we’re going to hit the floor…end of story.>

“In addition, we have the cooperation of Commodore Zahn and his carrier group, which greatly increases our fire power. Gold Technologies is just as interested in protecting its property in York Sector as the Commonwealth. Maybe you should think more like your father, Gold.”

Ben had no idea if the RADM had ever met his father, but if he really knew the man he would have never suggested Ben be more like him.

<Is that what you want?> Ben gripped the edges of his seat with white-knuckled fury.

He’d already seen tens of thousands of his comrades die. They’d fought bravely, but they just didn’t have the technology to fight off a superior enemy. They’d been consumed with fire, crushed by gravity, or taken by the black void of space. None were pleasant ways to die, and Ben wasn’t going to sit around and watch as the RADM sacrificed tens of thousands more for ego, or because he misunderstood the tactical situation.

<You asked for it. You’ve got it.> Ben hid the smile as he thought like his father. <What would good old Dad do?>

“Yes, Sir. Awaiting your orders, Sir.” Ben didn’t wait for the RADM to cut the transmission.

The crew on Argo’s bridge was still silent as the ship hurtled toward New Lancashire. Ben released the arms of his chair and took a few deep breaths.

“Comms, get me Commodore Zahn on King Midas.” Ben knew exactly what his father would do. He just hoped this went as well for him as it would for Timothy Gold. After all, he was not his father.

“Commander Gold?” Zahn’s face appeared on the holo. He looked genuinely confused why the hell Ben was calling him. “What…?”

“Commodore Zahn,” Ben made sure authority flowed through his voice. “Shareholder override confirmation code Bravo-Gulf-Seven-Six-One-Seven-Seven- Zero. Confirm.”

Zahn just looked at Ben. His face had gone white. “Commander…”

“Confirm, Commodore!” Ben snapped, making several people on Argo’s bridge jump.

“Confirming,” Zahn grumbled. A few minutes later, “Confirmed, Sir. You have command.”

<I have command.> Ben always thought that would be a good thing. His experience so far had proved that wasn’t the case about fifty percent of the time.

“Stand by to receive orders, Commodore.” Ben typed furiously on his PAD. He already had a Fleet template up, and it would be easy for the Commodore to understand where Ben was going. Ben sent it in under a minute and stayed on the line to ensure the Commodore received it.

“Received, Sir. Executing.” Zahn cut the line.

“Sir…” LT Briggs stepped up beside him. “What do you want us to do?”

Everyone on the gunboat had seen what had happened in Hahn system. They didn’t want to die for nothing. <That’s not our decision.>

“Follow the Rear Admiral’s orders, Lieutenant.” He ordered calmly. “We’re officers in the Commonwealth Fleet, and we follow lawful orders.”

The LT looked at him with a blank stare for a second. “Yes, Sir,” she finally replied before turning back to talk to the helmsman about their course.

“Be ready for an incoming call, Specialist.” Ben turned so he could privately address the SP2.

Sure enough, within five minutes a priority call was coming in from Abraham Lincoln. SP2 Olvera let the call through and the RADM’s pissed-off face glared out at Ben.

“Gold, what the fuck do you think you’re doing! I’m going to string you up myself and pull your feet until that thick neck of yours snaps!” The RADM spit venom through the holographic interface.

“I don’t know what you mean, Sir. I’m proceeding to the coordinates you sent to harass the enemy’s flank.” Ben said exactly what he was doing.

“Don’t fuck with me, kid. Commodore Zahn just let me know that his carrier force was beginning evacuations of the New Lancashire, starting with Gold Technologies’ employees, their families, and then they would open up their holds to others if there was room. He also told me you ordered it.” A vein was pulsing in the man’s forehead, and the high-definition hologram was picking up every pump of blood.

“That is correct.” Ben answered calmly.

“Lieutenant Briggs, relieve Lieutenant Commander Gold of command and…”

“I don’t think so, Heather, stay where you are.” Ben held up his hand. LT Briggs froze like a person caught between a rock and a bigger rock. “Sir,” Ben turned his attention back to the RADM, “for the record, I have complied with all of your lawful military orders to the letter. I am proceeding to the rendezvous point and will conduct operations against the enemy fleet advancing into New Lancashire. You have no grounds to relieve me of command, and…” Ben held up his hand when the RADM opened up his mouth to scream something new, “what I do with my corporate assets is entirely up to me.”

“Bullshit.” The RADM shot back.

“Section eighteen of the Commonwealth Charter, the Galactic Trade and Securities Act of 2243, and two dozen lawsuits that have gone before the judiciary would say otherwise. You may give me lawful orders and I must follow them when they are in conjuncture with the military ordinance under my command. My place as a majority shareholder and my rights with Gold Technologies are outside your preview as a military commander. In summary, I can do whatever the fuck I want with my corporate assets and there is nothing you can do about it. THAT is what my father would do. He’d do what he wanted to do and not care about who he stomped on during the process…Sir.” Ben added the last word to remain somewhat respectful in a recording that was going to end up in court at some point.

“I’m going to drag you in front of a military tribunal,” the RADM threatened.

“They’ll find in my favor. The case law and precedent is there,” Ben answered confidently. “I’d be surprised if they even let it get that far.”

“I’ll ruin you,” the RADM upped the ante.

“Respectfully, Sir, if you continue on your current course of action we’ll both be dead in a few hours so it won’t matter.” Ben’s tone wasn’t joking. “If we do survive, I welcome the challenge. We’ve got the sensor recordings and our conversations in the record. Admirals might arrive at different conclusions when drawing on their own experiences, but average people are only going to see one small ship destroying a whole lot of big ships. Then, they’re going to see the enemy coming at us with bigger a ship, one of which looks like it could eat all of our ships and have room for seconds. After all of the loss of life in the last year: Third Fleet’s task force that got hit, and the ships we’ve already lost in York Sector, I’m sure people would be willing to sacrifice a half-terraformed world for hundreds of thousands of lives.”

The RADM just hovered in the air seething for a full minute. “You’re an asshole.”

“No. My father is an asshole, I’m just trying to save lives and preserve our fleet strength for a battle of our choosing,” Ben replied back. “What are your orders, Sir?”

This was the moment of truth. Would the RADM be a stubborn ass and get everyone killed,or would he see reason?

“Put Argo on the ground and get as many people off New Lancashire as possible. We’ll conduct a fighting retreat to the Launcher and regroup in a better defended system.” The RADM seemed to deflate as he spoke.

“Roger that, Sir. Argo out.” Ben disconnected and looked out at his crew. They all looked a little star struck. “Get to it, everyone. We’ve got people to save and not enough time to do it.” Ben clenched his jaw as he looked back at the holo-tank.

The Kingdom’s formation was getting closer and closer. They were still a few hundred million kilometers out, but they were steadily closing the distance. Ben did some of the math quickly off the top of his head, and double checked it on his PAD.

<This is going to be close.> Even as he thought it, he knew it was an understatement.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 180

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Abraham Lincoln, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop stared at what the ET had hovering in front of Rear Admiral Nelson. <A box?>

It was a black rectangle no bigger than Coop’s hand. Unlike the BioSeed, it was clearly mechanical. There was even a blue button glowing faintly along one of its short sides.

“Rear Admiral, as our study showed that one of the societal foundations of the human species is war, it is necessary that your species be brought up to date on the latest combat technology.” The box slowly rotated on its axis. “The fundamental defensive measure of war is the shield.”

<No fucking way.> Coop zoomed in to his HUD’s maximum magnification. He looked for anything to show the box was a fake or some ploy. He didn’t see shit. It was a flawlessly constructed box he could fit easily between his shoulder blades. The only other shield generator he’d seen with his own eyes was the size of a city block, powered by multiple reactors, and in the belly of an assault carrier.

“The Commonwealth’s armed forces have begun experimenting with shield technology, but your primary defenses are still solid structures and molecular welding. In modern naval construction, those are acceptable third and fourth level defensive measures, but the foundation of defensive tactics is built around the shield,” Bob explained.

“Forgive me, Bob, but I find it difficult to believe what I know about shield technology and what you are telling me. Humans have a saying, ‘seeing is believing’.”

“Then a demonstration is called for.” The box levitated forward so the RADM could touch it.

“Master Sergeant.” The RADM carefully took the box and handed it to the HI NCO. Coop could tell where this was going before the big, armored man even turned around.

“Cooper, front and center,” the MSG commanded, and Coop’s feet moved of his own accord before he even thought about it.

<Shit…shit…shit…> Coop looked at the box and up at the MSG.

“Ender, you too since you’re Cooper’s butt buddy.” Mike didn’t reply to the MSG’s comment. He didn’t want to get in the same hot water that Coop was drowning in.

“Simply affix the shield to the front of Corporal Cooper’s armor. When developed for military use, the shields can be incorporated into your designs, but this is a beta product. You will have to manually switch it on and off. Press the button and it will activate. A readout of the charge will appear next to the button.” Bob explained as his cilia twitched in what Coop guessed were anticipation.

Coop had a flashback to when the armorer SGT back in Basic had used him as an example to demonstrate the Dragonscale armor. This was different. Mike was lined up opposite him with his Buss pointed at the ground, but still ready to bring up into a firing position at a moment’s notice.

“Don’t fuck this up, Cooper. No pressure.” The MSG stuck the box to Coop’s chest, and it magnetically fixed itself in place. “Enders, on my command, fire on Cooper.”

“Master Sergeant?” Mike couldn’t help but question.

“Don’t mow the moron down. A five-round burst should do the trick, and we’ll go from there.” The MSG backed away from Coop and Mike who were now lined up about fifteen meters apart. That was point-blank range for infantry combat.

Coop carefully followed the ET’s instructions. He pressed the button and the faint blue glow began to shine bright. Next to it, a green bar appeared. There were no other indicators other than the green bar.

“The shield is active,” Bob informed.

“Wait, I…”

“Fire!”

Five small explosions blossomed a few centimeters from Coop’s armor and the world warped and flickered blue, but nothing touched him. The green bar dipped a fraction, but then slowly began to climb back toward full power.

“Fuck me!” Coop laughed, and forgot he’d toggled the response on the general channel.

“I do not understand what this has to do with sexual reproduction?” Bob’s worms wiggled inside his bone-white bark-skin.

“Again, give him a steady stream of fire, Enders.” Mike didn’t hesitate at the MSG’s command. He poured rounds into the front of Coop’s shield.

The bar dropped precipitously over the ten seconds of uninterrupted fire, but it held, and Coop couldn’t help but make a few rude gestures toward his friend that got a few laughs from the gathered grunts.

“Very impressive.” The RADM turned back to Bob. “Is the manufacturer looking to give us a free sample?”

“Not for this product. With no licensing issue involved, this producer of shield technology likes to receive payment for orders up front. However, the market for shield technology is a robust one. I can communicate with my contacts and see if I can create a bidding war for your business, but I will give you fair warning. If you desire companies to compete for your business you will need to make a substantial order.”

“What would you consider substantial?” the RADM asked.

“For a first-time order with a newly discovered species…half a million units.”

“Shit. That’s a lot of cheddar.” This time Coop made sure his coms were off.

“I’m going to need to see some literature and technical specs of the different designs. Our own scientists are going to need to get in on the process to see what integrates with our technology the best. I’ll want economic advisors there as well to oversee the purchase, and of course, all of this needs to be cleared at the highest levels of my government.” The RADM spit out a litany of reasons he couldn’t make an order today.

“Of course, Rear Admiral. Our interactions with previous newly discovered species show a high level of central control on initial negotiations. Within five years it becomes more decentralized, and within twenty it is back to normal commercial standards.”

“Thank you for your understanding, Bob.” The RADM nodded in thanks and made a gesture to the MSG.

“Take it off, Cooper.”

“Awww…can’t I keep it?” Coop whined as he pushed the button to turn it off.

“No, dipshit. Haven’t you been listening…nevermind,” the MSG sighed in exasperation. “Just fall back in.” Coop did as the MSG instructed.

The small shield was passed back to the MSG, to the RADM, and lastly to its spot back on the pallet. If Coop wouldn’t have gotten mowed down by everyone he would have tried to steal that piece of tech. He could already see the way it would revolutionize warfare, but he was also cognizant of its limits.

Coop had watched closely during the test. The green bar had been nearly depleted after taking ten seconds of fire. Of course, those ten seconds were on full auto from a Buss with 3mm plasma-tipped rounds. Coop estimated a hundred rounds had slammed into him. That amount would chew through an HI trooper and turn him into well-done, Grade A, ground human beef.

<It doesn’t make a man invincible, but hot damn if it doesn’t make him hard to kill.> Coop couldn’t wait till he got one. <Now we just need the bean counters to cough up the cash to make it happen.>

Knowing the tight purse strings of the government, Coop estimated a minimum of six months before the first shield-capable suits started coming out. Those would be boxes attached to the existing armor like Coop had just modeled. Suits with shield tech integrated into them were a few years off, maybe a year if there was a new model in the works and they were able to incorporate it in before testing and deployment. Even with all that, the shields would go to R&S units first, and then combat deployed units.

<If I’m lucky, I’ll get one in three-to-five years.> Coop was willing to bet money on that. He just hoped the black market moved a bit faster than normal channels on spreading the wealth.

“As you can see,” Bob continued with his pitch, “warfare as you have previously engaged in is about to change.”

The next thing to hover off of the pallet was a flat, two-by-one-meter panel. Coop’s mind whirled with possibilities, but when it activated it looked like a giant spider web drawn in all the colors of the rainbow with glowing white dots all over the place.

“The human species is well-educated in war, and you are well aware that a paramount fixture of combat is logistics. You discovered this necessity with your Roman Empire thousands of cycles ago. The need to get soldiers and supplies from the production lines of the secure star systems in the rear to the contested systems at the front is a vital part of any war effort. The next product I have to offer humanity is an entirely new means of travel.”

The room was already quiet, but now you could hear a pin drop.

“Continue.” The RADM leaned forward. If anyone knew the value of moving troops and supplies through space it was the RADM.

“To begin, I must congratulate the human species. You advanced all the way to faster-than-light travel before being discovered by the Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings. Most new species we run into are still settling their home system and have not achieved faster-than-light travel.” Bob’s words made chests swell with pride around the room. “Although you have advanced far, your current method of travel is woefully inadequate compared to current standards.”

<And there’s the but.> Coop saw everyone deflate like a balloon.

“You have scratched the surface, but you have not reached the depths of what is possible.” Bob did something and the panel shifted. It wasn’t some new piece of tech, it was just something to use as a teaching tool. “Our research shows that humans learn well through analogies, so I will instruct with one.”

“An interdimensional network exists in our universe that is manipulated by the gravitational pull of stars. You have glimpsed it in your own travels. Your charting of systems during your Expansion period and mapping of warp valleys between the stars is that glimpse. Think of this network as a river. Through the use of your Alcubierre Drives and Launchers you used the very highest, most-discernable levels of this network, but you are like fish swimming against the stream that occasionally jump in the wrong direction. The pushing and pulling of space around the bubbles your Alcubierre Drives creates pushes you in and out of this network. It slows your rate of travel, unnecessarily taxes equipment, and it requires tremendous expenditure to fuel your current travel methods.”

Coop felt the tension in the room. What Bob was saying was the holy grail of space travel: a way to travel faster than light without being burdened by the limitations of exotic matter fuel. From a military and civilian point of view, this was a bigger game changer than shields. Humanity had already been making headway on defensive tech, but as far as Coop knew, no one was looking into FTL travel improvements because they thought they’d already cracked that puzzle.

“The human translation of traveling this interdimensional network is called Portaling. Portaling entails the opening of a portal into this dimensional space through a reconfiguration of modern shield technology and the power output of a vessel’s gluon power plants. These power plants will be available to you for purchase and are over one thousand times more efficient than your current energy production devices.” Bob didn’t stop to see the shock on people’s faces. “After entering the portal, the vessel uses quantum entanglement technology, which you have already successfully developed, to navigate to its destination. At the destination, a second portal is opened and the vessel emerges back into normal space. Portaling would allow you to travel from one end of human space to the other in just under a week.” Bob finished and everyone just stared at him.

Human space was roughly three thousand light years end to end. Using regular Alcubierre Drives and cutting a straight path across space would take a ship one-hundred-and-twenty-five days, and that didn’t even account for the time needed to stop and refuel, which would up that time considerably. Even using the Launcher network, ships had to stop in specific junction systems and take new launchers. That trip would take at least a month. With this new interdimensional network, it would quadruple the speed of commerce and military operations. Coop wasn’t naïve enough to think that was only a good thing.

“Our research calculates that you would have discovered the true nature of the network at your current rate of technological advancement within the next two hundred solar cycles. It would take you another fifty cycles to develop the mathematics to interact with it – you are on the cusp of the first iteration of precursor formulas currently – and another seventy-five to one hundred cycles to successfully create portals. Through trade, we can bring humans into compliance with modern travel standards quickly, and you already have infrastructure in place to allow safe portaling as soon as your ships are capable of generating the energy to create portals and maintain integrity during travel.”

“How much does a gluon power plant cost?” The RADM narrowed in on the key detail of this whole deal: price.

“A thorough assessment of your economy and evaluation of your currency will need to be conducted and integrated into the Hegemony of Pace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings’ banking system for an accurate price point.”

“Ballpark it for me?”

“I do not understand that expression.” Bob’s cilia wiggled.

“Give me a rough estimate,” the RADM rephrased.

“From my limited research,” Bob’s worms wiggled as he thought, “approximately twenty billion Commonwealth dollars.”

This time the RADM couldn’t hide his jaw dropping. That was the cost of a capitol ship. To integrate this new technology the Fleet would be paying double for a single ship.

<The bean counters aren’t gonna like this.> Coop might be called a pessimist, but he didn’t think this portaling stuff was going to happen anytime soon.

“If the cost of a gluon power plant is too extreme, we can discuss other modes of transportation.” Coop saw some color leak back into the RADM’s face when Bob said there was another way.

“Yes, let’s do that.”

“Very well,” Bob made another unnoticeable motion and the floating panel changed to show another piece of technology.  “Let me explain Splitstreaming.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 179

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Abraham Lincoln, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“The human species is an…interesting one.” Bob the alien began as holographic images began to populate the air around him and Rear Admiral Nelson.

“We conducted a case study of six billion of your population to ascertain your likes and dislikes, major industrial needs, and any cultural phenomenon that would assist me in better meeting the demands of your Commonwealth.”

Coop saw some charts and statistics that didn’t make any sense to him. <I guess some things don’t change no matter how many limbs you have. Math being one of them.> He grimaced as he remembered his least favorite class in the few years he did attend high school.

“From a societal perspective, you are well below the average.” Bob stated matter-of-factly, his translator showing no emotion at what Coop considered an offensive statement.

Clearly, a few of the others soldiers in the room were on the same page by the look on their faces. RADM Nelson was one of them. “Could you elaborate on that study? We do not know what the rest of the species in your Hegemony consider average.”

“Certainly, Rear Admiral. There were several variables in the study, but the primary two reasons humans deviated from the norm were the lack of a cohesive political state and work distribution.” Bob enlarged two of the charts.

Coop watched as he did but saw no increased movement in the internal wormy things or the cilia on Bob’s back. <Beats me how he’s doing it.> Coop mentally shrugged as the ET continued.

“A review of your history from the beginning of its recording –the last five thousand five hundred of your standard solar rotations – shows a deeply fractured system of governance that expanded from the geopolitical to the interstellar as the human species reached their space age expansion. Granted, you reached that stage above the galactic average of fifteen thousand solar rotations. It took my own species nearly twenty thousand solar rotations to leave our homeworld and settle our first colony, but we are not as robust as humanity.” Bob pulled a map of the Earth forward and hit a fast-forward function that showed the changing political landscape since man started faithfully recording their history about 3000 BCE. “The case study showed that through human history there is a continued theme of intolerance for ones different from themselves. Most notably, this is identified at first by clan, then kingdom, then skin color, nationality once nation-states began to emerge, sexual orientation, economic status, and those are just the most significant factors we saw. Ultimately, our analysis boiled the information down to one key component: humans lack the ability to trust one another.”

<You can say that again.> Memories flashed through Coop’s mind. He’d had his ass whooped by gangs because they wanted to steal his shit, then because he didn’t have any shit to steal. He’d been curb stomped by the PHA cops because they thought he was in the gangs who were kicking his ass, and this was all before he was ten. He’d watched the burbers ride around in their air-cars, sipping non-recycled piss, and laughing their asses off at the great time they were having. They’d roll up their windows and activate their car’s security system if they came with half a kilometer of a PHA.

Coop had no trouble believing the results of ET’s science project one bit.

“I do believe that the lack of trust in your species leads to the wide-ranging forms of government, which are a contributing factor in the distribution of work. Most species in the Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings have an orderly system built into their societies.”

“A caste system?” RADM Nelson interrupted. “Most highly evolved species have a caste system?”

Coop vaguely remembered the term from sociology class. <Old China had it…or was it India…The Second Empire of Japan?> He was really starting to regret not paying attention to the teacher and spending most of his time checking out Kylie Harrington’s tits. Those he remembered with astonishing detail.

“My translator indicates that you associate this caste system with negativity.” Bob continued unfazed.

“Humans don’t like to push people into a corner and make them do something they might not want to do.” RADM informed.

“I understand your rationale, Rear Admiral, but most advanced sapient species do not have a problem trusting the higher classes of their civilization to identify societal needs.  In fact, most of these castes are programmed or biologically altered to better achieve the goals of their grouping. This distribution of work has allowed species to flourish and all members to prosper.”

All Coop could think about was a person being biologically altered to be the best garbage man they could be. He was envisioning one hand being a shovel to better scoop up shit, and the other some type of robotic claw to better grab shit and keep a tight clamp on it. The whole concept Bob was explaining sounded retarded.

“Humanity has no such constraints, and therefore does not have the best possible human doing the job they are best suited for. In conjuncture with a lack of trust, this results in a lack of productivity.”

“You said we are above the average in getting into our space age; four times faster than your own species if I remember correctly. How can we be unproductive and achieve all that we have?” The RADM posed the question.

“There is a correlation between ingenuity and productivity.” Another graph appeared at Bob’s unknown command.

It was a bell-shaped graph that had a dozen lines identifying different species. The other species were identified only by letters, keeping their identities a secret, except for Bob’s species. Unlike humanity, the Twigs had low levels of ingenuity but high levels of work distribution. As a result, their productivity started off slower but rapidly picked up. Species with initial high levels of ingenuity started off with high levels of productivity, but there was a discernable curve on the graph. Productivity rapidly fell off when ingenuity reached a ceiling, and those species turned into some of the most unproductive.

RADM Nelson didn’t ask for anymore clarification. He knew how to read a chart.

“Our case study went as far as to analyze the two major human polities to ascertain which to make contact with. We found no great deviation between the effectiveness of The Eastern Block of Nations and the United Commonwealth of Colonies when it comes to effective governing of their populations.”

Coop felt like Bob had the room on the verge chopping his Twig ass into fire wood with that statement. Many of the people had fought against the Blockies, and many had friends that had been killed by their sworn enemy since of the last three hundred years. Saying there was no difference in the effectiveness of government between the Commonwealth and the Blockies was fucking bullshit.

Bob continued without hesitation. “The Eastern Block has more centralized control over their citizens, but all citizens can participate in the political process through Proxies. Conversely, the Commonwealth has more power delegated to the individual systems, but only allows citizens that meet a certain threshold to participate in Commonwealth-level elections. The individual systems are allowed to make their own determinations on voting rights, but fifty-nine percent follow the Commonwealth’s example and limit the right to participate in government. The Eastern Block has more central planning when it comes to social and economic issues than the Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth has greater corporate influence. That is what you would describe as a double-edged sword,” this time Coop saw Bob’s inner worms wiggle in either happiness for using the pun, or possibly laughter. “Those same corporations now hold significant power in directing the Commonwealth’s politicians to their desired goals. There is more I can discuss if you wish?” Bob asked.

“No, you’ve spoken enough on the topic. In the end you chose us over the Blockies, which is all that matters.” The RADM was a little gruffer in his response this time. He didn’t like the Commonwealth’s shortfalls being highlighted in front of everyone.

<Not like we didn’t know them already,> Coop thought.

“Indeed.” Bob was silent for a moment as the holographic images changed. “The case study was thorough when documenting your society for the purpose of identifying goods and products you would be the most open to. The results of the analysis conclude that humans are primarily driven by entertainment and war, so I have a sampling of items with me today to see if you are interested in making some initial orders.”

<Entertainment and war…sounds about right.> In Coop’s experience the ET had hit the nail on the head. <Now let’s see the goodies.> All this talk was getting boring. Coop wanted to see something that would make his life better.

“We’ve got another ship incoming.” Abe’s command team on the bridge relayed the approach of a new bulbous tear-drop shaped craft.

A few minutes later something new came hovering onto the flight deck. It didn’t look all that different than the thing Bob was hovering on, only it was bigger and had an assortment of objects evenly spaced on its surface. Two more of the spheres glided silently on either side of the sample products.

“These are just a few of the advancements I can provide to humanity through my contract.” Bob hovered to the right to make room for the new pallet.

“Sir…?” The HI MSG seemed uncertain as the pallet continued past Bob to hover over the table. The RADM had to get up out of his seat and move backward for the larger surface to have room.

The pallet lowered itself to hover a few centimeters above the tabletop, but because of its size, the dozen HI troopers guarding the RADM now got a good look at the items.

“The first item is a staple of galactic information, entertainment, and communication.” The voice in Bob’s translator changed. It took on more emotion and reminded Coop of the salesmen he used to see on late night holo-shows back in the PHA. Just like then, he wasn’t able to buy any of this shit.

A small, tan ball, in a clear, plastic case, about the size of a fingernail rose into the air and hovered forward to the RADM. Without hesitation the RADM grabbed the box and examined the item.

“This BioSeed takes the hassle out of the handheld devices that are common throughout the Commonwealth. Through a patented process, the seed incorporates the DNA of its owner, is injected into the bloodstream, travels a path to the owner’s brain, and creates a neural interface. That interface allows all five human senses to be administered depending on the activity the owner wishes to participate in. An example found in our research would be e-mails for personal or business functions. Holographic entertainment can be pumped directly into your mind allowing movies, television shows, and popular pornography to be experienced.”

“Ummm,” the RADM coughed awkwardly, and Coop had to stifle a laugh. Of course, porn popped up in their research, it was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Bob just didn’t understand the slight taboo around the subject.

“This is incredible. The applications for this go beyond commercial entertainment.” Despite his best efforts, the RADM’s eyes had gone wide as he rotated the box with the small piece of tech.  “But I have safety and health concerns, also questions about power requirements and anti-intrusion software. We can’t have people hacking into other people’s brains and brain surgery every five years to replace the battery.”

“Your questions are viable, but unnecessary.” Bob replied casually, taking everyone off guard. “You are looking at the BioSeed as a human product, something technological, and therefore mechanical. That is not the case. The BioSeed is biological. The signals sent and received by the seed are ambient and based on the individual species, which is why each seed needs to be coded to the owner’s DNA first. No power source is required, your bodies power the seed, and there is no way to ‘hack’ into it without physical manipulation of the body.”

<So they can torture the information out of you, but other than that, this BioSeed is a one hundred percent private bio-network where anyone can play games and watch porn all they want.> Coop pumped the breaks before he got too carried away. In his experience, nothing was one hundred percent for sure, and he didn’t like the idea of swallowing the seed and having it work its way into his brain. It sounded like you’d have a self-inflicted brain tumor.

“Your apprehension and misunderstanding are acceptable,” Bob continued as every human in the room daydreamed of what they could do with the BioSeed. “Preliminary trials will need to be conducted with your regulatory authorities to ensure the coding process is successfully completed according to the patent. Once humans see the viability of the product, the developing species will help cultivate commercial infrastructure to supplement the easy access and transfer of data through the BioSeed. Fees and applications will be forthcoming as access spreads, but the developing species is willing to offer you a goodwill gesture of fifty-thousand units as a down payment on future business.”

“Fifty-thousand…” The RADM quickly made sure his jaw didn’t drop. “That’s a kind gesture.”

“It is an economical decision based on data,” Bob advised. “A fifty-thousand-unit sample in exchange for the fees on infrastructure and tens of billions of future units to be purchased is a good business practice.”

“Yes.” The RADM nodded and put his poker face back on. “Will we get to see the developing species anytime soon?”

“I will handle the initial negotiations and licensing fees according to my contract. You will meet the developers for the infrastructure growth, but not before then.”

<The fewer ETs the better,> Coop thought. It might be his human nature creeping in, but he didn’t want humans to get overrun by Twigs and the BioSeed makers no matter how great their tech was. <It’s going to be a slippery slope. No one wants to turn down all access porn that’s played through your eyeballs.> The companies that made the VR machines would go out of business overnight, but Coop didn’t really care. They’d never given any PHA Rats a free sample of their latest tech, so Coop didn’t have a problem seeing them squirm.

“What’s next?” The RADM placed the box back on the hovering pallet and watched as something much more interesting floated into the air in front of him.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 177

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Abraham Lincoln, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Could you say that again please?” RADM Nelson’s eyes were fixed on Bob the alien.

Coop had to hand it to the old admiral. The guy must be a hell of a poker player. Just about everyone else on the flight deck had some sort of emotional reaction to the ET’s last words, but the RADM didn’t betray anything.

“Did my translator unit malfunction?” The only physical reaction that Coop could see on the alien was the brown cilia quiver on its backside, but he wasn’t even sure of that with the slight warping effect going on around the creature.

“No.” The RADM made a placating gesture with his hands. “I just need some clarification about what you said.”

“Certainly, Rear Admiral.”

<Yeah, it was definitely quivering.> Coop pulled up a text box on his HUD and dictated what he’d seen. Something told him they’d want to know everything they could about the alien the moment it stepped off Abe.

“The Compact of the Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings is a binding agreement between eight prime races and thirteen subprime races. It governs our interactions with each other and other sapient species throughout the known cosmos.” Everyone seemed to be leaning toward Bob as it spoke. “Clause D of the Compact outlines how we approach newly discovered species. A period of several cycles is established to study the new species. During this time period, data is collected and a baseline knowledge of the species is built. That foundation of knowledge is then auctioned to a member of my species for initial contact.”

“Why do the Twig Men get first crack at us?” Coop asked Mike.

“Twig Men…I do not understand the reference?” To Coop’s horror, and embarrassment, the ET rotated slightly until it was facing him. The black spheres flanking the ET repositioned as well.

Just about every other head in the room followed the ET’s turn. All Coop could do was gulp.

“Cooper, you stupid fuck…” the MSG in charge of their detail whispered threateningly over TACCOM, but then stopped when the RADM raised his hand.

“My soldier is assigning you a nickname based on what your appearance closely approximates.” The RADM tried to save the negotiation and Coop’s ass.

“I understand. My species closely resembles some fauna that we’ve studied on a few of your settled worlds. Twigs are a slender woody shoot growing from that fauna, and since you are assigning men, the plural of man, to my identification it constitutes recognition of my sapience.” The black worms inside the things bark-skin seemed to wiggle a little more energetically. Coop was just glad the thing didn’t understand what a diss was.

It went totally unnoticed by Coop, who was more worried about the ass chewing coming his way, that he’d just given the two hundred plus men and women present a pet name for the newly arrived species: Twig-Men or Twigs for short. Those men and women would quickly spread the word. Inside the day, every Commonwealth spacer and soldier in New Lancashire would be using the term, and as the news of the alien contact spread, so would the nickname.

All because Coop couldn’t keep his big mouth shut.

“My soldier does pose a good question,” the RADM continued Coop’s line of questioning to avoid any embarrassment on the part of the Commonwealth. “Why does your species get to make first contact with newly discovered species?”

“Twig-Men,” the alien’s wormy insides wiggled again like he enjoyed the nickname. “We are members of a merchant race. We travel between stars offering products for whatever a species desires. We bid on, and are awarded a contract, for newly discovered species so we can present them with cargo unique to their societal needs.” During his spiel, Bob rotated back to face the RADM. “We have found through time that the best way to greet a new species and welcome them into the Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings is with productive commerce.”

<Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings…is that a translation error, or are these ETs just that uppity.> This time, Coop kept his thoughts to himself.

“Thank you for the information.” The RADM inclined his head in a respectful bow to the alien. “If we can return to the original statement you made. Why can you not speak for the other member races when you state you mean us no harm?”

“To put it succinctly, I cannot make promises for other member races.” Bob stated more bluntly then it had anything else. “Clause D gives member races the ability to decide for themselves how to interact with other species. I mean you no harm, and it is unlikely any other Twig-Men you encounter will wish violence on you. It is not our species way, but that is not the way of all species in the Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings.”

<Ok, now I know there has got to be an error.> Coop was sure of it. <Why would you have peace and tranquility in your name if you weren’t peaceful or tranquil?> Coop really wanted to ask, but the ET was already moving on.

“Is that explanation sufficient?” Bob’s stillness was unnerving, but Coop was more worried about the spheres at its side. He got the feeling he was being watched by those things.

“Yes, thank you.” the RADM answered.

“You are welcome.” The alien’s research had obviously included manners. “Cooper, do you have any other questions?”

It was lucky he was in armor or everyone would have seen Coop’s face pale. He guessed it made sense that the alien was addressing him. He’d made the mistake of being overheard on TACCOM. It was worrisome that the ET was able to penetrate their secure communications so easily, but that was something for the SIGINT people in S2 to worry about. Right now, Coop was being asked a direct question from a Twig whose only other human converser was the RADM. Clearly, Bob thought Coop was someone important.

Coop was silent for a heartbeat before his mind caught back up with him, and a second after his mind caught up his mouth followed.

“What is that distortion in the air around you?” The question was out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

This time the RADM’s poker face cracked and it looked like he was chewing gravel.

<I am so fucked.> Coop was just thankful they’d have to pry him out of his LACS before they killed him.

“You are very observant, Cooper.” The alien continued on without understanding the undertone of Coop’s situation. “The distortion you are detecting is my personal shield.”

That snapped the RADM’s attention back on the alien. “Personal shield? Do you feel threatened by us?”

It was a loaded question and Coop knew it. It was designed to get intelligence. If the Twigs felt threatened by human tech then this wasn’t a first contact where humanity would be the underdog. If the Twigs didn’t feel threatened, an explanation from Bob would give the people recording this whole encounter more information about the new species; namely, a way to defeat it if necessary.

“No, Rear Admiral, I do not feel threatened by you.” The alien’s statement wasn’t a haughty response from a superior species, just a statement. Or at least that’s what Coop thought. It was tough to tell when the alien had zero nonverbal cues and the tone of the translator was consistently neutral. “My personal shield protects me from your atmosphere. The environment humans live in is rather harsh.”

“Could you elaborate, so we can better understand?” The RADM was clearly grasping for whatever he could get. The alien either didn’t understand this or had no problem sharing potential weaknesses.

“Certainly,” the cilia quivered again on Bob’s back. “My species’ homeworld has lighter gravity and air containing less hostile organisms.”

<Hostile organisms?> Coop couldn’t help but scan the area around him, but it came back as a 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases with no signs of any bacterial or viral threats.

“My personal shield protects me from the harsh environment and allows us to interact,” Bob finished.

“Please forgive me if I am prying, but I don’t see any sort of equipment other than that piece of metal you are standing on that would allow you to maintain an atmosphere. How are you doing that?” the RADM continued his line of questioning.

“It is not prying. I appreciate any conversation that leads to a better understanding between us,” the alien replied generously. “I am able to naturally maintain my own atmosphere through my biological functions.”

“Thank you for the explanation.” The RADM nodded his head again, but his poker face was back up.

Whatever the RADM might be thinking, as an HI trooper, Coop had his own thoughts. <They were able to cut through TACCOM without even trying. They have personal shields when we can’t field anything like that on anything smaller than a battleship or a block-sized field generator at the brigade level. The ETs definitely have us beat in the technological department.> The thought was frightening, but it would be more terrifying if the Twig looked like it was going to do them harm. Judging by the interaction so far, it clearly did not. <And that is because they’re naturally a weak species. The shield is there for a reason. Our air is toxic to them, and it seems like Earth-standard gravity will injure them. On the flip side, they’re able to maintain their own atmosphere inside a protective bubble which has to come in handy.>

It made sense the more Coop studied the ET. The tree-like structure of the alien wasn’t thick or strong-looking like an Earth redwood or oak. They might be quite a bit taller than the average human, but Bob’s various branch-limbs were thin and narrow. A tree that size, but so thin, on Earth would have been crushed. The more Coop thought about it, the more it made sense the Twigs were the welcoming race into the Hegemony. They didn’t look threatening, a little tech was all they needed to sustain themselves, and they came bearing gifts.

<I wonder if they’re even one of the eight prime species?> Coop wondered, but he kept his mouth shut. He’d asked two more questions then he should have, and he was bound for extra duty at a minimum, possibly a loss of rank. He wasn’t going to open his mouth again.

“You are most welcome.” The alien continued to remain unflinchingly polite. “Now, if you are willing, we would like to show you the gifts and products we’ve brought to begin the prosperous trade between our species.”

There was only a slight hesitation in the RADM’s response. “Let’s begin.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 157

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Abraham Lincoln, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Enter.”

Ben did it all by the book. He marched forward and snapped to the position of attention in front of the RADM. “Lieutenant Commander Gold, reporting as ordered, Sir.”

RADM Nelson barely looked up from the PAD he was working on. “At ease, Commander. Take a seat.” He waved at one of the chairs surrounding the conference table.

Of all the times Ben had met the Task Force commander, he couldn’t remember actually being in the smaller man’s office. The RADM preferred to do his work in the small conference room right off the bridge. It made sense. If anything happened he was right there to take command of the situation.

Ben popped a squat in the nearest seat, but didn’t relax. His butt was right on the edge of the nano-laced fabric. The RADM didn’t give him a second glance for two whole minutes as he finished reading whatever was on that PAD.

<I hope it’s my report.>

After the action taken in System 1861, Ben was forced to spend most of the trip back, and the first few days back in New Lancashire, compiling a lengthy report on what occurred. Enlisted soldiers and NCOs might make fun of officers for this aspect of their job, but the truth was that it was integral to anyone who’d been involved in the action.

Without Ben’s report no one got the recognition they deserved. They didn’t get points for promotion. They didn’t get medals or awards. They didn’t even get combat pay, so the more detailed Ben was the better for everyone. He had reviewed the recordings from the marine’s armor as part of the process, and put together the sequence of events for the RADM to make a judgment on the effectiveness of Argo and her attached Infantry in completing their mission.

“Good work, Gold.” The RADM leaned back in his seat and gave Ben a small smile; emphasis on the small. “From what I’ve seen, Argo and her crew performed admirably. You isolated the problem, assessed your options, and took swift action. I’d put this one down in the win column.”

“Thank you, Sir. I…”

“That doesn’t mean it was done flawlessly,” the RADM interrupted before Ben could get going. “You lost too many marines in taking the station. There are some inconvenient gaps in the footage during the recovery process, and the little trick those pirates played allowed a lot of people to get away. This isn’t a cut the head off the snake and the body withers scenario. Sure, you cut off this head by taking the rock and seizing everything, but people got away and they’ll pop up somewhere else to annoy some other skipper or admiral in the future.”

“Understood, Sir.” Ben had learned long ago when arguing with his father that sometimes it was just better to take the hits. Hindsight was twenty-twenty.

“I’ve reviewed your recommendations, and I’ve approved the combat pay. This certainly meets the qualifications, and it will allow the fallen marines’ families to receive the proper benefits. As for the awards, I’m authorizing a general citation of accomplishment for the crew. From the report and footage you all did your jobs to standard. All other awards are denied.”

Of all the stuff that the RADM had said, that hit the hardest. Ben could take the older man being hard on him, his actions hadn’t been perfect, but it really riled him up to see him put down the men under his command. They’d followed his orders to the best of their ability and adapted to an unpredictable situation. They deserved something more than a few extra bucks in their bank account on the first and fifteenth of the month.

“Yes, Sir.” Ben bit the inside of his cheek and balled his fists underneath the table.

The RADM raised an eyebrow, but let the insubordinate tone go. “We need to look at your next assignment.”

“I’ve got training scheduled with Charlie Company of the 2223rd, Sir.” Ben hastily added. He’d made the deal with the Infantry LT to get Coop, and he wasn’t going to renege or else his word would be useless in the future.

“I’m assigning you to the next iteration of the Strike Force, Lieutenant Commander.” The RADM clearly didn’t care what an Infantry battalion had on their training schedule. “It’s about time Argo got to engage in some proper gunboat operations. You will be the forward scout for the operation. Meet up with Captain Jacobson for your deployment orders, but I suspect you’ll be setting sail soon, so if you’re going to do training I’d do it now.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ben was glad he wasn’t getting his reputation totally thrown under the bus.

“Don’t screw this up, Commander,” the RADM offered some parting words as Ben got to his feet, and snapped back to the position of attention. “I won’t be just Argo and a handful of marines who’ll pay if you screw this up. There are nearly ten thousand spacers and marines in that strike force, plus a ship from our newest ally. Don’t pull a Cobalt Station, Gold.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ben stood there rigidly until the RADM broke eye contact in a clear sign of dismissal.

<Message received, Sir. I did ok on this last mission, but I am still on your shit list.> Ben shared the sentiment.

His six-month tour was two-thirds of the way done. He couldn’t wait to get out of this place and move on to his goal of the Diplomatic Corps. He’d much rather be making deals than under RADM Nelson’s hounding gaze twenty-four-seven.

“Everything good, Sir?” Chief Yates was waiting outside the conference room hatch with the RADM’s aide. The aide scurried inside while Ben and his NCOIC headed back down toward Argo.

“He’s giving combat pay and a ship-wide citation, but nothing else.”

“Hardass.” The CPO looked like he’d wanted to spit.

“We’re on the next strike force mission though, so conduct a readiness check at 1500. I want to make sure we’re ready to ship out when I get the order.”

“We still doing the training with LT Wentworth?” The CPO remembered the name of the woman who drove the hard bargain for Coop’s inclusion.

“Get a message down to her and tell her to haul ass up here if she wants to get her qualifications done anytime soon.” Ben shrugged. He wouldn’t have any information until he talked with the strike force’s CAPT.

“Yes, Sir.” The CPO nodded and started drafting an e-mail on his PAD.

Training was an NCO thing, so the CPO and infantry GYSGT would figure out everything and then tell the officers what was going to happen.

“Any word on Lee?” Ben moved onto the next uncomfortable topic. He was just glad the RADM hadn’t added it to the list of things to ream him on.

“The MPs transported her up to the brig here. The master at arms have her under guard until it gets resolved.”

<Just what I need.> Ben did not want to go into battle without his engineering apprentice, who, if his suspicions were correct, actually did most of the work that kept Argo running.

“I did reach out through the petty officer network,” Yates grinned casually like he hadn’t subverted chains of command and forgone lines of communication. Ben didn’t think much of it. The POs did it all the time. After all, they ran just about everything. “Some little birdie told me that the case should be resolved by the end of the day.”

“That’s good.” Ben was happy for the good news.

He’d read over the case information provided to him by the arresting planetary authorities, and it didn’t look like Spacer Lee was an accessory to murder. It didn’t even look like Coop was a murderer. It read like self-defense, and that was the verdict Ben was hoping for.

Coop had helped him out twice now, and it would be a shame to have such a talented fixer end up in a military prison because some jealous guy tried to shoot him. Ben just had to trust the military justice system would see the facts and rule accordingly, because right now he had to get Argo ready for its first real task-force-level offensive operation.

He was going to be swamped.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Coop had been in prison before. More than once in fact during his Rat days, but prisons in the PHA were different.

<These are cleaner, so point for the brig,> he thought to himself. <But despite having multiple Rats crammed into the drunk tank that place was still bigger, so point PHA.>

Coop tried to shift position and knocked his sore knee against the metallic shitter in the corner. He cursed, tried to shake it off, and bumped his elbow into the metal bed.

“Son of a bitch!” he yelled, losing his temper and lashing out.

Now the bed post had a fist-sized indentation in it, and Coop’s knuckles were sore. He shook out his hand and continued cursing.

The brig of the MP station on base was built for single occupant, regular-sized men. Coop was way above average, so he felt like a person living in a doll house. His feet hung off the bed, he had to maneuver himself into the corner to take a proper shit, and the door leading in and out was way too small for him. The MP who brought him in was a nice enough guy and apologized for the inconvenience. Apparently, they had appropriately-sized cells for HI troopers but they were occupied. It had been a rowdy few days in Town Center.

Coop didn’t consider himself claustrophobic, but this whole experience took him back to Isolation Week in Basic. It was driving him crazy. At least on a warship, even a small one like Argo, there was always some cute spacer to chase that took his attention away from the confinement. Here, all he could do was wank into the toilet, and after Aiko that was just boring.

Coop was about the throw another punch into the crippled bedframe, but the door slid open and a large shadow blocked all the light from entering.

“I knew this was going to happen sooner or later.” SSG Hightower towered outside the cell.

“I didn’t do anything,” Coop automatically went on the defensive. “Dude tried to kill me, Staff Sergeant. What was I supposed to do?”

“I’m not the man you need to convince.” The giant SSG moved aside so two smaller MPs could usher Coop out of the cell and into handcuffs.

Coop had been in handcuffs several times as a rambunctious Rat, but never these. For people with enhancements two set of cuffs were used. The first went around the wrist like every pair since the beginning of time, but they weren’t metal. They were made with some sort of nanite-drenched fabric. It made them as comfortable as wearing CMUs, but at the MP’s command current went through them and hardened the material to improbable strength. They had more in common with the ES function on his LACS armor than the handcuffs he’d worn back in the PHA. The MPs called them flexcuffs.

Even though Coop had tried, and failed, to budge the flexcuffs, the MPs didn’t take any chances. The second pair was metallic, but smaller. They locked around his thumbs and a short, metal chain looped through the flexcuffs. Coop had tested these too, and immediately realized that was a bad idea. If he pulled too hard he was positive he was going to break both of his thumbs, and that would suck donkey dick.

Coop didn’t resist as the MPs put the flexcuffs and thumbcuffs on him. He was innocent after all. There was nothing to worry about, or at least that’s what he kept telling himself. Despite his certainty, he couldn’t shake the feeling like he was being led to his execution.

The MPs walked him away and the SSG followed to where his fate would be decided, which turned out to be the LT’s office. Instead of the LT sitting at the desk there was a stern-faced LCDR watching Coop with sharp eyes as he entered. The LT was off to his left with an unreadable expression, and an MP LT stood to the right. He looked bored.

“I call this military tribunal to order.” The LCDR didn’t have a gavel to smack, so he used his fist. The guy wasn’t Ranger or Recon, so he didn’t have enhancements, and the ensuing echo was appropriately weak. “Lieutenant Commander Thad Benson, Commander, 2223rd Infantry Battalion, presiding along with Lieutenant Jacobi Wentworth, Commander, Charlie Company 2223rd Infantry Battalion, and Lieutenant Han Johnson, Commander, New Lancashire Military Police Company.”

Coop just stood in front of the three officers with the MPs at his side and SSG Hightower at his back.

“How do you plead, Private First Cooper Mark Cooper?”  The LCDR looked Coop directly in the eye.

“Um…not guilty, Sir. The dude tried to shoot me in the fucking face. I was just defending myself and Spacer Lee.”

“A plea of not guilty in entered into the record.” The LCDR waved for Coop to shut up and turned to the MP LT. “LT Johnson, present the evidence.”

What the MP LT stated was music to Coop’s ears, which was probably why a JAG officer wasn’t present on Coop’s behalf. Forensically, it was a self-defense no brainer. They had Bradford on tape buying the weapon illegally. They’d tried to capture the smuggler Coop had sold the guns and drugs too, but he’d fled the system, so Coop dodged that bullet too. Witness statements from Coop, Aiko, and the motel clerk corroborated the evidence and matched, which they obviously did because it was the truth. The particle residue on Bradford’s hands sealed the deal when both Coop and Aiko tested negative. The case was so overwhelmingly in Coop’s favor that he wasn’t sure why they were doing a tribunal in the first place.

“Thank you, LT Johnson.” The LCDR still waited until the MP LT had presented all the evidence. “Based on the incontrovertible evidence it is within my delegated authority to declare Private First Class Cooper not guilty in the eyes of this tribunal.” The two LTs added their verdicts of not guilty into the record as well. “For your actions, Private First Class Cooper, you are being docked two weeks’ pay and sentenced to a week of extra duty.”

Coop didn’t see that coming. “Why, Sir. I didn’t do anything wrong?” His protest slipped out before he could stop himself.

LT Wentworth gave him a hard look, but the LCDR waved her off. “Mr. Cooper you still killed a citizen of the Commonwealth.”

“Respectfully, Sir, I’ve killed a lot of people. That’s my job.” Coop couldn’t stop himself.

SSG Hightower jabbed a knife hand into Coop’s kidney. “Shut the fuck up, Cooper, and take the punishment,” he whispered in Coop’s ear.

“It’s your job to defend the Commonwealth against enemies, Private Cooper, and the Commonwealth has invested a lot of time and money so that you can do that well. Do you agree?”

“Yes, Sir.” Coop puffed out his chest with pride.

“Since your training is so excellent, by your own words Private Cooper, why did your assailant have to die? You could have broken limbs and taken the weapon. You could have incapacitated him with the extensive hand-to-hand combat skills you’ve been taught. Hell, you could have chucked a lamp and knocked the fucker out.” The LCDR grew more heated as he went on. “You did not do any of those things, Private Cooper. You killed him. Your pay will be used to ship the deceased’s body back to his home system, and your extra duty will be some quality time for you to reflect on your actions. In addition, I want a report on all the different ways you could have incapacitated instead of killed. Deliver it to Lieutenant Wentworth at the end of your extra duty time. Only once your punishment is completed will I sign off on your promotion to corporal.”

That got a grin out of Coop. He’d totally forgotten about his promotion, and something told him that the LCDR couldn’t take that away from him or he would be making sure he stayed a PFC.

“This tribunal is adjourned.” The LCDR smashed his fist on the desk, turned off his PAD’s recording feature, and walked out without another word.

“Release him.” The MP LT clearly had better things to do because he left right behind the LCDR.

That left only Coop, his LT, and SSG.

“Way to shit the bed, Cooper.” The LT looked pissed. “Staff Sergeant, select the most boring and monotonous details available and assign Cooper to them. You can also consider yourself on CQ duty this entire weekend, and that paper better be a fucking religious experience to read or you’re going to do it again and again until you get it right. I’m not turning some half-assed attempt into the Commander.” She sat down and jabbed her finger into her PAD to open up her work. “In case you’re wondering, all of this is being done on top of your regular duties. If I hear you slacking I’m going to pull that second chevron, Cooper, I swear to God I’ll do it.”

Coop knew everyone wasn’t fucking around. “Yes, Ma’am.” He braced to attention.

“Get out of my sight.”

Coop hopped to it, and had barely made it out the door before the SSG grabbed him by the shoulder and half dragged him to his office.

“Here.” He grabbed a large polyplast sign. “This is the latest general order form the base commander. You will stand out on the main road through base with this to educate the military population. You will do this until relieved. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal, Staff Sergeant.”

“I will be watching, Cooper. If you slack off, or take off, I will make you regret your existence.”

“Consider me motivated, Staff Sergeant.” Coop replied back.

“Get the fuck out of my sight.”

Coop ran out of the office and out to the main street to begin his punishment. He had no idea how humiliating it was going to be.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 140

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Abraham Lincoln, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Ben walked up and down the corridors of the giant mess cupboard. The space was large enough for a battalion of marines to assemble in, but no marines were allowed back here without authorization from Abe’s mess officer, which for the last three months had been LCDR Ben Gold.

The problem wasn’t a marine’s untrustworthiness. It was that Ben had come to figure out that soldiers were always hungry, and when they got hungry they got sticky fingers. That was the entire reason he was back here doing a spot-check of the inventory. Everything was digitally logged and accounted for by the ship’s network when it was loaded onboard and moved for distribution. It had taken Ben a few months, but he’d eventually figured out the tricks to bypassing those levels of security.

He stopped to check a crate of freeze-dried meats and looked at his PAD. There were supposed to be fifteen hundred of these packages in the most recent shipment. The first thing he did was check the seal of the container. A person could reseal after opening, but it was hard to match it back up exactly, so there was often some evidence of tampering. This crate looked ok, so Ben moved on.

He repeated that task for the next three hours until lunch. He would eat last and spend most of the time in the kitchen monitoring the NCOs that were assigned under him. He wished he’d be taken out of this position before the three-month cut off, but that day had already passed. Even if he left tomorrow he would be forced to complete a change of rater NCOER for the fourteen NCOs among the support unit.

It was all part of his punishment. No one came right out and said that he was being punished, but the few conversations he’d had with RADM Nelson left little room for interpretation. Ben had been captured by the enemy. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t really his fault, that he’d fought valiantly during the kidnapping and even killed the security chief who set it all up. It also didn’t matter that he’d fought tooth and nail to escape. The RADM repeated multiple times that those actions reflected highly on the crew of the Breckinridge and its marines, not Ben. That had made it easier for Ben to write up a commendation for PFC Cooper, but it still left him in a bind.

The real reason the RADM was pissed was because they were fighting a war with limited resources, and he’d been forced to divert resources to rescue Ben when he needed to be pushing the offensive against the Blockies.

The only thing that kept the RADM from relieving Ben on the spot when he stepped aboard Abe was because he’d promised to convince Commodore Zahn to stay in the sector. Zahn’s orders were something to that effect to begin with, but the RADM didn’t need to know.

Since he arrived back in friendly space, Argo had been sidelined. The crew still kept the ship ready for a fight, but they weren’t given any missions. A ship that was built for commerce protection, anti-piracy operations, and advanced scouting had been sitting in its bay gathering cobwebs: all because of Ben.

“Look at the bright side, Sir.” Chief Yates told him over a beer when they were both off duty. “I’m retiring after this.”

“Chief, how does that help me?” Ben gave the NCO a level stare.

“Huh.” The man frowned and scratched his chin. “I guess it doesn’t.”

So, when Ben got a message on his PAD to report to the RADM as he was counting apples brought up from New Lancashire, he didn’t have much hope for the conversation.

<That’s good enough.> Ben stowed his PAD in his leg pocket and left the cupboard. He made sure to secure the door behind him, because even as he walked away he saw a few marines standing down the hall looking conspicuous.

Even with grav-lifts it took almost twenty minutes to get from the mess area to the Admiral’s conference room right off the flag bridge, and even once he arrived, he had to wait. The RADM’s aide stood guard by the door like a loyal hound.

Ben was accustomed to the hurry up and wait phenomenon that penetrated every facet of the military, so he came prepared. He had templates to fill out for all of the NCO’s NCOERs, so he spent the forty minutes sitting there filling in all the information to save him time later.

“A HA HA HA HA!” The door slid open and Commodore Zahn stepped out with the RADM smiling behind him.

<At least he’s in a good mood.> Ben fixed a pleasant expression on his face, but didn’t laugh at whatever private joke they’d just shared. He wasn’t going to be that guy.

“Anyway,” Zahn wiped a tear from his eye, “my carrier group would be honored to participate in maneuvers with some of your units. We need the training, and I can’t think of a better way to conduct it.”

“Please.” The RADM waved away the compliment. “It is the least I can do after you agreed to keep your forces in the vicinity. If the Blockies head our way then we need to be able to work together.”

“Ah, Mr. Gold.” Zahn caught sight of Ben and extended his hand.

“Hello, George.” Ben shook.

Military protocol was a little fuzzy when it came to interacting with corporate navies. Normally, the Fleet would treat corporations that were in good standing with the Commonwealth as they would other allied navies, meaning ranks would be given the same respect as an officer in the Fleet. By that logic, Ben should be calling Zahn “Sir” or “Commodore”. The difference here was that Ben happened to be one of the primary shareholders in the corporation that Zahn worked for, so even though the Fleet dictated that Zahn was a superior officer, Zahn still worked for Ben and his family.

After all the crap he’d been through in the last three months, Ben was just fine addressing the Commodore by his name. The RADM frowned, but George didn’t think anything of it. He knew where the real balance of power lay in Gold Technologies.

“I’m off to Midas, but the invitation for dinner is always open, Mr. Gold.” George was shameless in his ass-kissing attempts.

“That is greatly appreciated, George. If I have some free time I’ll take you up on it.” Judging by the last three months, Ben wouldn’t have any free time anytime soon.

“Lieutenant Commander.” Rank might not apply between Ben and George, but it surely did with the RADM.

Ben followed the smaller man inside the conference room and braced to attention.

“At ease. Take a seat.” The RADM waved his hand casually, and Ben did as he was instructed.

The RADM pulled out his PAD and hit a few buttons. A map of the explored space in York Sector expanded in the holo-tank at the center of the room. One system was highlighted, and it made Ben gulp.

“System 1776.” The RADM didn’t have to say any more to convey Ben’s failure on that one. “We have been making a lot of headway against pirate elements in the sector thanks to Commodore Zahn. Our intelligence has pinpointed a possible staging area.”

“Staging area?” Ben raised an eyebrow as system 1861 was highlighted.

“Even pirates need secure locations to rearm and resupply.” The RADM explained. “Since the crackdown with Cobalt Mining Station, friendly ports have been dwindling. As a result, the pirates are having to develop their own resupply points. They like to use previously established infrastructure if possible. They prefer abandoned stations, but sometimes they’ll sneak onto planets in the terraforming process. There aren’t many of those around here, so we’ve been combing through the records of any abandoned military or civilian projects, and I think we have a winner.”

System 1861 had six planets, all outside the Goldilocks zone where terraforming was possible, but there was a thick asteroid field that looked like it would make a corporation a healthy profit once the sector filled in a little more. The military anticipated that and had started hollowing out a few asteroids as resupply points for patrols. Things had changed when the FTL routes had been established and System 1861 became off the beaten path. Construction had stopped and would only be resumed when a corporation moved in to mine the field. It would have been beyond easy for one of the construction crew to let slip the asteroid’s location to some pirates for a small price.

“We have three possible locations that Argo is going to investigate. I would prefer to have Myrmidon tag along, but all of my other resources are on picket duty waiting for a Blockie counterattack, so Argo has to handle this solo.”

The tone in the senior officer’s voice was clear. This was Ben’s last chance. If he screwed this up, the RADM would sink his career. Even Ben’s connections wouldn’t be able to save him from accusations of incompetence, and that would be the end of his dreams for the Diplomatic Corps.

“Yes, Sir. Argo is ready to go.”

“Good. You’re set to deploy in the next forty-eight hours. You’ll take another two squads of marines to help with clearing the installations, so it’ll be a cramped ride, but you should be there and back in no time.”

“Yes, Sir. I’m on it.” Ben knew when he was being dismissed, and he felt rejuvenated more than he had in months.

He was more than halfway through his deployment cruise, and looking at the scoreboard he was zero for one. He had won a small battle, but that didn’t mean anything when the people he was supposed to have defeated then captured him and the whole facility the Commonwealth was charged with protecting.

Ben had to get this one right, and he had a few ideas on how to make that happen. As it always did, it all started with having the right people involved, and if he was taking on more marines then Ben knew who he wanted at his side.

Noah Grisham

Location: System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Noah wiped the sleep from his eyes as Dawn limped into docking clamps. To say things had been tough since the Corpies obliterated Cobalt Mining Station was an understatement. It had taken two weeks before Dawn could peak her nose out of her hiding place and get the hell out of System 1776. By then, Noah and Able were drinking water made from recycled piss and were down to less than a thousand calories a day. Another couple of days and the two pirates would have killed each other for some fresh meat.

From there they headed as far from the Collies as they could. They needed to catch their breath before figuring out their next move. They’d docked at a Blockie outpost under no flag and running on fumes. That had led to another two weeks in the station’s prison followed by an offer they just couldn’t refuse. The Blockies were hiring any privateers willing to harass the Collies. News of the battle in System 1552 had already spread, and the resulting alliance between the Star Kingdom and Collies. The Blockies were on the ropes and they could use all the help they could get.

Noah took them up on it. They helped repair and resupply Dawn and sent them on their way to wreak havoc on Collie shipping. They weren’t even out of the system yet before shit hit the fan. A Collie task force dropped out of FTL just as Dawn was about to jump away. The Blockies only had an obsolete destroyer and the station’s defenses to fend off the multiple battlecruisers, and what Dawn’s sensors were identifying as a ship of the Royal Navy.

The writing was on the wall and Noah didn’t need to sit around and wait to see who won. It also meant that he’d just gotten a free refit from a station that was going to cease to exist in the next few hours. Those free supplies had set Noah up for the next two months, and fueled his real mission.

Noah Grisham was not a man who took betrayal well, which was ironic considering how many times he’d literally stabbed someone in the back. The single all-consuming thought on the pirate’s mind was who had fucked him over so badly it had nearly killed him.

He had his first lead.

It had taken resources and flying around the sector for weeks to figure out where a person could smuggle large amounts of supplies without any asking questions. The answer, which cost an arm and a leg in bribes, was a private consortium of like-minded entrepreneurs in System 1861. They’d commandeered a mined out asteroid and turned them into a hot spot for less-than-legal trade. If someone was smuggling something big under the radar it went through System 1861.

That was where to start, but the real clues were the two M3 rifles in the Dawn’s makeshift armory, which was code for Able’s room. The digital data had been thoroughly wiped.  Five hundred bucks and the best criminal hacker in the Sector’s underworld hadn’t turned up shit.

Even though there was no digital information, there were the physical rifles that could still be used for clues. The rifles had numbers etched into them that Noah could hopefully track to the source – or at least another clue that would lead to the source.

<Once I find that son of a bitch I’m going to cut his balls off and feed them to him.> Noah was on a mission, and nothing was going to stand in his way.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 134

Rear Admiral Hank Nelson

Location: CWS Abraham Lincoln, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 It was chaos on the flag bridge of Honest Abe, but that was a good thing. Chaos meant action, and in RADM Nelson’s mind, a Fleet full of inaction was bound to atrophy and rot away. Their purpose was to protect the Commonwealth in whatever way necessary. The chaos was them doing their job.

“Captain Jacobson reporting in, Sir.” The RADM’s aide stepped aside so a stately woman could enter.

Her brunette hair was done up in a tight bun without a strand of hair out of place. She was tall, just a hair under two meters, so she looked down a long, slightly-hawkish nose at her superior. She had blue in her eyes that only served to highlight the stormy blue irises. She was every inch the proper commander.

“Janette, have a seat.” Nelson waved for the CAPT to relax.

She did as she was instructed. She had an inkling of why she was here, but she wasn’t taking anything for granted.

“I’d ask you how things are going, but I read all the reports coming off of Andromeda,” the RADM smiled. “I can say with certainty that you’ve got the best battlecruiser in the task force, Captain.”

“Thank you, Sir.” The CAPT didn’t crack a smile, but there was a slight tug on her lips that showed one was attempted.

“Because of your success I have a new assignment for you.” The RADM continued. “We’re in a precarious state here in York Sector. We’re engaged in combat operations against the enemy with little to no reinforcements from the Fleet. Lancelot is going to be undergoing repairs for at least six months, and the new cruisers we just received are going to need another few weeks in the yards before they can resume operations.”

New Lancashire didn’t have naval yards per say, but they had crews of willing and able workers ready to be shuttled into orbit to work on the massive warships. The RADM was glad they wanted to help because it was a lot easier than forcing them. The ships needed to be repaired so they could defend the colonies. Without them combat ready they were all in deep shit.

“The last thing the enemy is going to expect is a lunge into their territory after the bloody noses we gave each other in System 1552. They’re probably doing the same thing we are and calling for reinforcements, and with the way things are shaping up in Syracuse Sector I doubt they’ll fare any better than we are.”

“Yes, Sir.” The CAPT kept her face neutral because she hadn’t heard the words just yet.

“To that end, I’m giving you command of a strike force, Janette. Andromeda, four other battlecruisers, and the missile cruiser Deluge will be placed under your command. I want possible courses of action on my desk by the end of the week. We’ll approve one with Commander Patterson present, allocate a necessary marine contingent, and get back to the business of winning this war.”

“Yes, sir.” Now a slight smile spread across the woman’s face. “I won’t let you down.”

“No you won’t, Janette.” The RADM’s voice dropped low enough to be considered frosty. “Because the mission I send you out on is a must win. You either take the objective or you don’t come back.”

“I won’t let you down, Sir.” The dismissal was evident, and the CAPT took the hint.

The moment she was out the door, the RADM’s aide was back. “Sir, the commanders from the Royal Navy have arrived.”

“Send them in.” Nelson got to his feet and made sure his uniform was on the dress setting. The guys from Windsor were sticklers about customs and courtesies, so he had to show off his medals and achievements to be taken seriously.

“Gentlemen.” Nelson smiled as the two officers in red entered.

He’d been briefed on them when the two cruisers arrived in New Lancashire. One was a nobleman, a Lord of someplace. He was a Lord Captain, but not as important of a Lord Captain as Lord Captain Churchill who commanded the Dreadnaught Francis Drake. It was some combination of peerage and ship command priority that made the Lord Captain junior to Churchill. Even if Churchill commanded a destroyer, he would have still been senior to this cruiser’s Lord Captain because he was a Duke. It was all very confusing.

The second royal officer was just a plain captain, and Nelson found that refreshing. It was just as refreshing as the Queen herself ordering the two warships to assist the Commonwealth in whatever way necessary. It showed the Star Kingdom was taking the alliance seriously, and that was a breath of fresh air in the tornado that was the York Sector.

The two officers gave Nelson a short bow before extending their hands. They talked briefly about the Queen’s orders to them, the mood back in the Star Kingdom, and general likes and dislikes. Nelson wanted to get a feel for them before making his request.

“Two more cruisers are going to be vital in the coming months, especially cruisers as robust as yours.”

Just like the dreadnaughts, the Star Kingdom’s cruisers were bigger, bulkier, and the RADM assumed better armed than the Commonwealth’s own cruisers. The new Virtue Class cruisers Nelson had just received were five hundred meters from bow to stern, had armor 3.5 meters thick, 65 missile tubes, and twelve energy cannons. They were the best armed cruisers in the fleet.

In contrast, Nelson’s passive scans showed the Star Kingdom’s cruisers had armor as thick as his battleships: 6 meters. They were seven hundred meters long – nearly as long as a Commonwealth battlecruiser – and had sixteen energy weapons that his sensors could make out. They couldn’t get a count on the missile tubes, but if the RADM extrapolated the numbers he expected them to be in the ballpark of seventy-five. The royal warships were battlecruisers in all but name, and Nelson could really use them.

“Lord Captain,” he turned to the senior royal officer, “would your Queen accept one of your warships engaging in combat operations with members of my task force?”

The Lord Captain didn’t even miss a beat. “Of course, Sir. We would be honored. Our own crews do not have the combat experience of your own navy, so we are more than happy to get the experience.”

“Excellent.” The RADM couldn’t keep his grin under control. “I have a strike force assembling to drive into the heart of enemy territory as soon as possible.”

“I will take Benjamin Disraeli on this mission while Neville Chamberlain remains with the main task force.”

“Very well, I will inform Captain Jacobsen of your ship joining her order of battle.” He would have said more, but his aide came running through the hatch.

“SIR!” the young LT looked past the annoyed look on the three senior officers’ faces. “We have an FTL footprint.”

The glare evaporated from the RADM’s face. All three of the officers jumped from their seats and made their way out of the conference room and onto the bridge proper. The 3D holo-tank hovering in the center of the room showed the unidentified blob of disturbed space-time that indicated an imminent arrival.

“We’re predicting multiple large contacts, Sir.” The navigation OIC was hovering over his own display as data flooded it. “Half a dozen, maybe more.”

The RADM’s practiced eye swept the holo-tank. Some of his ships were running exercises nearly fifty million miles away, but the majority of the task force was still in orbit around the planet New Lancashire.

“Let’s see what we have before we start a panic.” The RADM decided. The ships that were coming out of FTL would emerge hours away from the planet. That was more than enough time for Nelson to counter their movements.

It was an excruciating five minute wait before the blob in space solidified into actual ships.

“I’m showing two destroyers, four battlecruisers, and an undersized carrier.” Abe’s CIC churned out the information, before refining it.

By the time the first transmission reached the assault carrier everyone on the ship was breathing a sigh of relief.

“Commonwealth task force commander, this is Commodore George Zahn, Gold Technologies Security Fleet. Sorry for dropping in on you unannounced, but we hear you have a bit of a security issue with Cobalt Mining Corporation.”

<Mad George Zahn.> Nelson knew of the Commodore. He’d been a battleship captain in the Commonwealth fleet before retiring. He was known for being reckless and making rash decisions, but those decisions tended to work out. It was a toss-up if the man was skilled or lucky. Either way, Gold Technologies thought he was good or lucky enough to hire him to command a carrier group.

<About time.> The RADM schooled his expression so no one could see him smile.

Corporate fleets weren’t the same as the Commonwealth fleet. First off, the largest groupings of them were carrier groups much smaller than a traditional task force. The corporations didn’t have the luxury of fielding hundred-ship fleets to engage in massive space battles. Their mission was to protect the corporate worlds, defend commerce, and only occasionally duke it out with another corp if the Commonwealth couldn’t arbitrate the issue. None of those missions require as many ships, especially when the corporations were able to lobby the Commonwealth and get additional fleet resources assigned to protect their interests.

The carrier group put together to come out to York sector wasn’t a huge one. They had two destroyer-sized ships to work as scouts or vanguard and rearguard. The main force was four ships that supported the corporation’s assault carrier. None of the Gold’s ships were as big as the Fleet’s ships. It was the opposite of the Royal Navy’s oversized vessels, but they were enough to get the job done.

<Excellent. Everything is working out just as I planned.> Nelson invited Zahn to come aboard Abe before they headed off to System 1776.

He wished the corporation had brought more ships, but seven would have to do. It increased the Commonwealth-friendly fighting strength in the Sector by twenty percent, and with what he was planning another small fleet in the area was going to be priceless.

The bad news was they hadn’t heard back from the destroyer and marine squads sent to retake the station. That wasn’t a good sign, and it had more than a few people on edge. Nelson only wanted the Gold heir to get roughed up a little, not to actually die.

<Although, if he dies I bet I could get one hell of a force commitment from Gold Sr. to the sector to help stamp out piracy operations in the name of his fallen boy.> As good as that would be, he couldn’t think about that. He had to think of the big picture. He had a war to fight against a professional enemy, and having Gold Technologies there to help in any capacity was a move in the right direction. If the Fleet couldn’t provide for the protection of its citizens, then Nelson was committed to getting it done whatever the price.

“Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me.” Nelson excused himself from the bridge. He had some calls to make and things to set up in the next few hours before Zahn arrived. It was a delicate situation he had to handle properly. If he did, things would be looking up for the Commonwealth in the York Sector and for Rear Admiral Hank Nelson.

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