Two Worlds – Chapter 236

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Coms check,” the SGM stated over TACCOM.

{Coms check,} he reiterated over their IORs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 234

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 228

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” Coop answered politely.

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

“Sorry, but no,” Coop replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Worlds – Chapter 223

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

It had been a week since the clandestine meeting with Hailey, and Coop hadn’t heard anything. The PAD just sat there silently. He would have been more than happy to sit back with a cold beer, turn on the holo, and try and get back on Eve or Aiko’s good sides, but Coop’s idea of a good time didn’t mesh with the SGM’s.  When Coop had returned from the meeting, the SGM hadn’t given him enough time to take a shit before being ordered to get into his PT uniform and assigned tasks to complete. Coop hadn’t cleaned his LACS after the exercise, and after a ten kilometer run, he spent the rest of his first day back on regular military duty picking pieces of moon dirt out of his LACS’ crevices.

Every day was like that. PT was followed by classroom exercises in their new equipment with the resident civilian engineers and Carol in attendance. The afternoon was more practical application of the hardware and software, either in VR, or on the system defense force’s ranges set up outside the city when available. Coop thought the SRRTs were supposed to be special, but since the anti-terrorism operation, they acted just like any other military unit Coop had ever been a part of.

“Everyone finish up. We’re on the truck in ten.” The SGM stuck his head into the small NCO chow hall.

Coop had no idea what truck he was referring to, but he knew where they were picked up for exercises, so he planned out the next ten minutes to ensure they would be there on time. He wanted to know what they were doing, but he didn’t bother looking it up. Eve would already have the training schedule up on her PAD, so there was no point wasting time when he could be eating.

“The schedule says we’re slated for inventory and technological familiarization,” Eve frowned at the screen in front of her before folding it up and putting it back in her CMU’s pocket.

Coop was pretty sure the SGM tried to make things as vague as possible just to fuck with them. He’d learned long ago not to get worked up about it. Instead, he shoveled the powdered eggs into his mouth and took a big gulp of coffee.

“Well we better get to it.” Coop rose and deposited his tray in the auto-cleaner before heading out. It was a short walk to the loading bay, and he was there a full three minutes early. Despite that, SSG Hightower and GYSGT Cunningham were already present and getting things squared away.

Coop fell into the front row of the small formation next to Eve. As the lowest man on the totem pole, he was to the far left. Usually, Mike would be standing behind him, but the big guy was still recovering from having his guts repaired.

With a minute to go the SGM appeared behind the wheel of a civilian van. He got out along with LCDR Gold, and LT Wentworth. The two officers walked to the back of the formation where they took their place. Aiko was also back there with the LCDR. As a spacer, she stood apart from the infantry formation. Coop would have turned around to talk to her earlier, but their relationship was still best described as frosty. Eve was warming back up to his presence, but the warmer Eve got the colder Aiko got, and vice versa. They were opposite ends of a weighted scale, and Coop was growing more convinced that he would have to work on repairing one relationship while ignoring the other. Either way, he feared for his personal safety.

<There’s no wrath like a woman scorned.> He wasn’t sure if he got the quote right, and didn’t really care. He just didn’t want to wake up one night with a knife in him, or something important missing. The woman who placed it would determine the target.

“Cooper!” The GYSGT snapped him out of his little trance. Everyone else was hoping in the van while he was still standing there.

“Just keeping you on your toes, Gunney.” Coop automatically replied back as he jumped into action. Because he’d been the last to move he got the honor of sitting up front with the Gunney.

He noticed the officers and Aiko weren’t present. That would normally prompt some questions from him, but one look at the GYSGT told him to keep his mouth shut. If anything, she looked a little nervous. Cunningham never looked nervous.

Squished next to the GYSGT would have been an uncomfortable ride, but they ended up not going far. Less than three kilometers later, they pulled to a stop in front of the base’s hospital. Coop’s o-shit-o-meter immediately spiked from curious to ‘what-the-fuck-is-going-on’ when he saw a dozen doctors waiting for them with poorly-concealed, eager looks on their faces.

When the doors to the van opened, the docs began calling out names like they were trying to herd a group of kindergarteners.

“Sergeant Cooper…Sergeant Mark Cooper! A pair of female doctors yelled from the periphery.

“That’s me.” Coop walked toward them and shouldered aside people in his path. That knocked a few of the other doctors to the ground, but he ignored their glares. Coop had been in the military long enough to know they were about to be given some sort of medical procedure. Knowing what he did about the SRRT, Coop did not have a warm and fuzzy feeling about whatever experiment they were about to conduct with some untested alien technology. Getting reassurances from a giant, floating tree that things were going to work did not fill him with confidence.

“Come with us,” they grabbed him by the hand and led him into a side door of the building.

Normally, two attractive women leading him somewhere would be cause for a celebration. Not this time. They descended several stories into what could be called the bowels of the facility where several clean rooms had been set up.

“Undress and put this on.” The doctors deposited him in front of a set of doors leading to one of the clean rooms. Coop was expecting some type of hospital gown to be the new uniform of the day, but instead they gave him what looked like a tight shower cap and nothing else. There were glowing data relays, processors, and sensor nodes on the cap, which further heightened Coop’s anxiety.

“So I’m just going to rock out with my junk out for this?” Coop yelled after the doctors as they retreated to some sort of command room. He never got a response, and doubted he would. If they were going to be uncomfortable with the all the nudity then that was just the flavor of the day. For whatever they were about to do to him, they could deal with him hanging brain.

With a sigh, he undressed and put the shower cap thingy on his head. There was nothing for a moment until the form-fitting material suctioned to his head. It was tight, but not unbearably so. The weirdest part was that the cap was slightly warm.

“Welcome, Ladies and Gentleman, to another exciting day in the advancement of mankind.” Thomas Gold’s voice announced over unseen speakers.

<This guy again.> Coop rolled his eyes and wondered who was really in control of this SRRT: the Commonwealth or Gold Technologies.

The corporate titan went on for a minute or so, but Coop didn’t pay attention, and only tuned back in when he said, “Thanks for all you are doing.” That seemed to be a cue, and one of the two doctors entered the clean room in a biohazard suit.

<Now I’ve got the warm and fuzzies.> Coop didn’t even try to flirt, and he looked at her hand with apprehension when she held it out.

“Sergeant Cooper, I’m going to need your consent for this part.”  The doctors produced a PAD. Coop looked at what was in her other hand and fought back a shiver.

Inside an injector, balanced in clear fluid, was a small seed. Unlike some, Coop knew exactly what the thing was. He’d seen one modeled to RADM Nelson back on New Lancashire before everything went to shit.

<Bioseed.> Coop cringed as he remembered what Bob had called it. It looked like a slimy sunflower seed, but was a medium brown color. It looked like a small, oozing poop nugget that was slowly diluting the clear fluid in the injector.

“I would like to introduce all of you to the Individualized Organic Router.” Thomas Gold stated with definitive pride.

Coop bit his lip but couldn’t help himself. “Why not just continue calling it a Bioseed?”

There was silence for a moment, and Coop could practically feel the SGM and GYSGT glaring at him from whatever clean room they were sitting naked in. One small blessing was that the windows were tinted for privacy.

“Focus group testing suggests that people are uncomfortable with the seed terminology. It makes them envision something growing inside of them. An IOR conjures more of a mechanical image that we’re accustomed to when dealing with technology.” Gold’s explanation sounded like part of a rehearsed sales pitch.

“But just to be clear,” Coop just couldn’t leave well enough alone. “It is still an organic seed that we’re about take, which will grow and intermingle with our brain to create the pathways to route and connect with alien information systems that we haven’t developed yet?”

“Correct.”

“Cool. As long as we’re all on the same page.” Coop flexed his left arm several times until the veins started to pop. Then he tapped it with his right hand’s middle and pointer finger. “Let’s go, Doc, shoot me up.”

“Sergeant Cooper has given consent to proceed.” The doctor said to the PAD for legal reasons.

She approached, pressed the injector against a throbbing vein, and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp, stabbing pain, but Coop ignored it. He’d had a leg crunched by massively increased gravity. This was nothing. What was worse was the feeling of blood pushing the seed along. It was small enough to be moved along in his enhanced veins, but just barely. Now Coop knew what it was like to have a blood clot.

He looked around and tried to see through his clean room partition and into the next one over. He imagined Eve sitting at the edge of her bed with her face screwed up in disgust.

“Cheers!” Coop yelled while pantomiming clinking glasses together in the window’s direction although no one but the doctors monitoring him could see or hear him.

His doctor came over and pushed his arm back down while monitoring his vitals. What Coop didn’t know was that he would be sitting there for the next thirty-six hours while the IOR made its way gradually to his brain. After that, he and the rest of the SRRT were put into a medically-induced coma to allow the IOR to reproduce more quickly and establish itself. Normally, this would happen more gradually while people slept, but the infantry didn’t have time to waste. There were things to do, people to kill, wars to win, and interstellar diplomacy to consider. The SRRT teams were needed fully operational yesterday, and no one was willing to wait for things to progress naturally.

Coop just had to embrace the suck and deal with it.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 222

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop pulled the hatch closed behind him. It was a hatch not a door on the space station above the moon. They used Navy terms here instead of ground pounder terminology, but Coop wasn’t concerned with that. He took a deep breath and focused on his PAD. BLOCKED NUMBER was displayed in big red letters, but that wasn’t a surprise. If Coop thought back on the situation, it seemed Hailey, or the people Hailey worked for, had been able to take out the Liberation Movement terrorists and capture others before the Commonwealth or local police. Then, they’d been able to transport those people across the city while avoiding surveillance. Whoever they were, they obviously didn’t cut corners when it came to operational security.

Coop let the breath out slowly before hitting the accept button on the PAD. The call was voice only, so no 3-D holo of the person’s head appeared from the PAD’s surface. Instead, he was met with silence. He waited for a good ten seconds on the chance it might be a bad connection, but it wasn’t.

“Hello?” Coop finally asked.

“Coop.” The one word response brought back a flood of memories. The foremost being that the tone Hailey was using told him she was suspicious. At least this time is wasn’t her being suspicious that he was sleeping around with another girl. This time, he had no idea what she was thinking.

Coop wouldn’t lie to himself and say he wasn’t a little nervous. After all, this was a girl he’d boned on the regular for years, and maybe even had feelings for. He cared about her well-being, and if he was being honest, it hurt a bit that the first thing she did when they saw each other was kick him in the jejunum.

“Hailey,” he stated back to her. Then, after a moment, “I think we might have gotten off on the wrong foot…with that foot being the one that kicked me over the banister.” Coop couldn’t stop from sounding a little pissed. He’d come really close to smashing his head on the edge of the fountain. He might have his skeletal structure reinforced, but that still might have cracked his skull open.

Hailey didn’t say anything back. She seemed like she was waiting for something.

“But that’s water under the bridge,” Coop continued. “Sorry about your club. I didn’t want things to get messy, but your people started shooting and it just kind of devolved from that.” Coop shrugged even though she couldn’t see it.

“Devolved? That’s a pretty big word for you Coop. What have they been teaching you in the military?”

Coop bristled slightly at that because he used to be able to tell when she was giving him a good-natured ribbing. Now, he wasn’t quite sure.

“The better question is what have they been teaching you? I know what type of place that was, and judging by the room you just came out of, I have a good idea what you were doing.” Coop retorted, his voice a little on the cold side.

He immediately regretted it. He was supposed to be opening up a dialogue to get information about the Liberation Movement. Instead, he was criticizing her life choices.

“Sorry,” he genuinely apologized. “What you do is your business and yours alone. I just wanted to call you so we could meet up and talk.”

“Talk about what?”

Coop couldn’t tell if there was interest in her tone or not, so he assumed the best and pushed forward. “We’ve got reports that some of your people might have picked up some people that we were looking for. I’m sure you’ve heard about the terrorist attack at the base. It’s pretty nasty stuff, and we’re just after the perpetrators.”

“Whose we? Are you working for the cops?” There wasn’t any judgment in the tone. If this was a year and a half ago, she would have called him a snitching bastard, but things had changed.

“I’m working with the planetary authorities to help find the people who did this, and as far as I know, that does not include you.” Coop knew he couldn’t tell her about the SRRT, but he also knew it was important to relay that he wasn’t after her or her organization.

Hailey was quiet for a long time; too quiet. He was pretty sure he was on mute and she was talking to her bosses. Technically, Coop should be talking with his bosses too, but the SGM’s philosophy was to get from Point A to Point B while staying within the commander’s intent. The path was up to the individual soldier to decide and take. In other words, he wasn’t going to micromanage them like children. Everyone here was a big boy or girl who knew their shit. They were battle tested. He trusted them to make the right call. Unfortunately, in Coop’s experience, many people, especially officers, didn’t share the SGM’s attitude on leadership. The S2 was probably one of those people, but Coop had better things to do than constantly loop the LCDR in on this. If the woman was doing her job correctly, she was probably already listening in on the call. Now that Coop thought about it, calls were supposed to be restricted inside certain sections of the Pooler Anchorage.

“We can meet.” Hailey finally came back on the line. “One hour…Wright Square…under Landing Point…come alone.” The line went dead and Coop started moving.

A shuttle ride from Pooler down to Savannah City took at least thirty minutes in transit time. Coop needed to get a ride first and then get to Wright Square. The Square was one of the largest in the capitol city. Hundreds of thousands passed through it every day, and that large transportation circle that passed around it made for easy ingress and egress. As far as public places went, it would be a nightmare for the Commonwealth to try to catch Hailey, and with only an hour to prep, no one would be in place in time.

All of that flashed through Coop’s head as he threw open the door to the briefing room. The retired tankers were having a good laugh that was abruptly cut off by the sound of metal striking metal. “We’re on it sixty.” Coop informed the SGM before taking off down the narrow hallway toward the shuttle bay.

“Make a hole people!” The SGM and Eve were right on Coop’s ass, and surprisingly people made a hole.

Coop thought it had less to do with the SGM yelling than people seeing three very large human beings barreling in their direction. <Whatever works.> Coop wasn’t thinking about those people anyway. He was thinking of what he was going to say.

 

***

 

Fifty seven minutes later Coop stepped foot onto the winding sidewalks of Wright Square. The original Wright Square back on Earth’s Savannah was maybe a tenth of the size of the remake. Instead of a monument to the Creek leader Tomochichi, this Wright Square had a statue commemorating the landing of the first settlers on the planet. Coop didn’t pay the big colony ship with a stream of people disembarking much attention; even if it was his final destination. He was focused on the area around him.

Like he suspected, it was a surveillance clusterfuck. There were easily a few thousand people jostling to get where they were going. It was 16:57, just before the end of the work day, and soon this whole place would be packed shoulder to shoulder with commuters.

“Coms check.” Coop subvocalized into the bone mic.

“Good copy,” Eve’s voice replied.

Even if Hailey said come alone there was no way in hell the SGM was going to allow that. Instead, the rest of the SRRT was in place around the park and in overwatch positions. Coop was entering from the north. Eve was sitting on a bench half a kilometer away near the south side exit. She wouldn’t be able to catch Hailey if she ran, but the plan was to form a perimeter and try to box her in. Coop didn’t have a lot of faith in that plan, but at least there was a plan.

“We’ve got you, Cooper. No sweat,” GYSGT Cunningham interjected. She was behind a sniper rifle about a klick away. It was her and the SGM’s responsibility to watch for Hailey and any threats. Sullivan and Hightower were also on perimeter duty, on the east and west sides respectively.

Coop scanned the people around him. He knew what to look for: looking at the hands were the key, and he also monitored for bulges in smartcloth that might indicate a weapon. Lastly, the contact lens he wore was running facial recognition on anyone he wanted to check out further. Despite the technology at his fingertips, it was hard to get a good bead on someone who was just hurrying by to catch transpo home after a long day at work.

<Nice work, Hailey.> He had to give his ex credit where credit was due. Even though she said to come alone, she knew he wouldn’t…just like she wouldn’t.

“I’ve got one.” The GYSGT sent over their net. “They’re three hundred meters at your two o’clock, third story window.”

Coop didn’t look right away. He continued to scan the area like normal and only looked up when he swiveled his head. His contact lens highlighted the hostile in red. It really just highlighted the window in red because as a trained sniper, the guy fired from inside the cover and concealment of the room. Coop just hoped the SGM or GYSGT had a good angle on the guy.

It was only two hundred and fifty meters from the square’s entrance to Landing Point. It took him more than three minutes to get there, so he was technically late. He hoped Hailey would still show. While he waited, he took a seat on one of the benches surrounding the monument and did his best to look inconspicuous. His eyes continued to scan, and updates flowed into his lens as his teammates identified more potential hostiles.

One of the cops patrolling the square stared at him a little too long, but eventually continued on his patrol. Coop’s eyes were on the cop’s back when the bench shifted slightly from additional weight.

“Hello, Coop.” Hailey was sitting next to him, close enough to touch, and pointing a snub-nosed pistol at his chest. “What do you want?”

Coop kept his face calm and collected. He was wearing body armor. He wasn’t a moron, but body armor wouldn’t protect him if she decided to shoot him in the face. “I told you what I wanted. I want the people who perpetrated the terrorist attack. The people your people picked up in the warehouse.” Coop kept his face emotionless as he watched her process the situation. “You look good, Hailey. Get a little work done?” He couldn’t help himself and cracked a smile.

Having an audio-only connection on a PAD and seeing someone face-to-face allowed people to read each other better. Hailey was clearly tense and expecting something. Coop tried to not be tense, but it was hard to a degree with a pistol pointed at his gut. Both of them read each other’s expressions with whatever experience they had gathered over the last year and a half.

After several tense seconds, Hailey tucked the pistol back in her jacket pocket. “You can have your people stand down,” she insisted as she casually leaned back on the bench.

Coop didn’t know if she actually knew where his people were, and he wasn’t going to give up that information. “How about all of our people stand down and we just talk.” He nodded toward the window where he knew the Hailey’s sniper was sitting.

Hailey didn’t give any indication of calling anyone off, but the tension in the air was less, which was good enough for Coop.

“Seriously, you look good.” Coop repeated. It was always good to start off a negotiation with a compliment.

“You look big.” Hailey ran her eyes up and down his enhanced body. “It looks like modern medicine has been good to both of us, but enough chit chat.” She brought them back on topic. “You’re looking for the Liberation Movement?”

“We hit several of their stash houses, confiscated weapons, and took out a few operatives, but some got away,” Coop relayed. He doubted Hailey and her people didn’t know about that already.

“The people you found in the warehouse were the last of the Movement’s people. We picked up two more guys, but they’re not local. They were independent third-party suppliers,” Hailey informed. “We want the Movement stopped as much as you do. It took out some of our people as well, and it’s bad for business.”

“It looks like we’re on the same page then.” Coop gave her his best smile. “But I’m going to need the name of the guy you were with. He shot my friend, and as you said, that’s bad for business.”

Hailey’s cheeks might have flushed a bit, but it didn’t stay that way. “We’re not on the same page, but we’re reading the same book. We’re open to cooperation to get justice for our people, but after that…” she left the rest unsaid. Her eyes shifted like she was looking around to make sure the coast was clear before whispering the name Coop wanted, “Noah Grisham.”

“That’s great,” Coop clapped his hands in excitement and reached into his own pocket.

In a blur, Hailey had the pistol back in her hand and pointed at him. <Damn she’s quick.>

“Easy,” Coop slowly pulled out a folded up PAD. “Take this to contact us. We’ll share intel and coordinate any future operations so no one’s signals get crossed. Sound good?”

Hailey lowered the weapon, put her hand in her own pocket, and pulled out another PAD. “How about you take this PAD and contact us when you’re about to do something so we don’t cross paths.”

Coop rolled his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was get into a dick-measuring contest here. “How about we take each other’s PADs? This way we have multiple lines of communication open.”

Coop liked to think it was his award-winning smile that sealed the deal when Hailey took his PAD, and he grabbed hers. She didn’t say goodbye or anything as she rose from the bench and headed directly to the most crowded spot in the square. It was midway between Eve and Sullivan, and there was no way either would get to her in time before she descended into the underground subway system, got on a bus, or just walked away in the throng of people streaming through the area.

Coop wanted to call out for her to stop. He still had so much to say. Business was out of the way and he wanted to know what had happened with her. His feelings weren’t the same as they’d been on that day he’d left the PHA. He’d grown up a lot in some ways, not a lot in others, but she was still a part what had led him to this point in his life. Simply put, he wanted to catch up with an old friend.

“Should I take the shot?” The SGM’s comment snapped him out of that train of thought.

“Hold fire. Mission complete.” Coop subvocalized as he got up and headed in the opposite direction. “Let’s exfil and get with the S2.”

Coop was sure the PAD Hailey had handed him was full of passive surveillance tech, just as he was sure the PAD he’d given her was. The S2 needed to go through the PAD and pull the data it could. The police and military’s locations weren’t exactly a secret on New Savannah, but the criminal elements of Hailey’s organization probably were. If the S2 could get a hit on them, then they’d be killing two birds with one stone.

<I doubt it.> Coop didn’t think they’d get squat. It was a burner PAD with customized software loaded on after purchase. Hailey looked like she knew what she was doing, and that meant her people were legit.

That was good though. It meant the New Savannah Liberation Movement didn’t have long.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 208

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“Doesn’t this place have fucking swatters?” Coop fumed.

Sunlight had already peaked over the horizon and two of New Savannah’s three moons had set. The temperature had already crept back up from slightly bearable, to an instant recipe for ass soup, and the lingering chaff in the air around the defense complex wasn’t helping.

“It does.” GYSGT Cunningham stood in front of him. “The S2 section is investigating to see why they were late to this party.”

Coop’s temper didn’t let up, if anything, it intensified. Only some of that had to do with the colossal clusterfuck that had occurred as all the VIPs exited the Gold’s shindig. A few of the VIPs ended up having a blast…literally.

“Those swatters should have been spun up and ready to go. For fuck’s sake, you can put the damn things on auto and just let them sit there to do their job!” For the millionth time, Coop had to resist the urge to scratch a new hole in his arm. One was enough at the moment.

A translucent gelcast, encasing a few liters of blue goo, covered his arm from shoulder to elbow. From what the rest of the team told him, the medics had stabilized him quickly once they arrived and transported him to the complex’s small hospital, which was overrun with much more seriously injured people. A doctor quickly fit him with the cast, poured in the nanite-rich solution, and kicked him out to make room for one of the VIPs whose legs had been crushed. That was fine with Coop. He didn’t want to be there anyway.

The one thing Coop regretted was not taking the drugs the doc offered him. He warned Coop that the itching and irritation of the nanites repairing his damaged tissue would be unpleasant, but Coop shrugged it off. He thought he could take it. Now…he felt like ripping the arm off and beating the swatter operators to death with it.

<If I was all doped up I wouldn’t be able to help catch who did this.> He reminded himself as he bit his tongue and settled with digging his fingernails into the tabletop.

“Intel didn’t know the New Savannah Liberation Movement had that type of ordinance.” SGM Queen announced as he walked into the room with a purposeful stride.

Everyone in the room hopped to their feet as LT Wentworth and LCDR Gold followed. Except for Coop. He just held up his gelcast as his excuse. The two officers didn’t seem like they cared, but the look on GYSGT’s face said she was going to rip him a new asshole when this was all over.

“This is the same intel section that is investigating the swatter fuck up?” Coop asked. “Sounds to me like our lovely S2 section is oh for two today. Maybe someone else should take over so they can get their shit together.”

“Stow it, Cooper.” SSG Hightower and the GYSGT snapped at the same time.

“No, that’s quite alright.” A third officer entered the room with a PAD in hand and LCDR stripes on her CMUs. She quickly waved the SRRT off before they could get to their feet. “As the sergeant so aptly put it, we fucked up.” As she tapped her PAD, screens began to spring to life around the room.

The screens looked like overhead satellite footage of the city. Coop could make out the general shape of the defense complex, along with the number of city parks within the city limits. Judging by the lighting, this was real-time data.

“Ma’am, this is my team. Team, this is ma’am. No other form of address is necessary.” The SGM made the introductions.

<Oh great. A spook.> Coop just couldn’t wait to see how this turned out.

“Good morning…at least for some of you.” Her eyes fell on Coop and his cast, and Coop couldn’t help but glare at the not-so-subtle dig. “It goes without saying that any and all information you receive today is classified.” She waited until getting a nod from everyone in the room before continuing. “New Savannah is a modern planet, with the full resources of the Commonwealth at its disposal. As such, we have an integrated human and signal intelligence network in place. It is standard operating procedure anywhere where we conduct R&D research for the fleet. The various corporations have their own intelligence apparatuses, and they’ve dutifully handed over any intelligence they’ve collected. The result is a comprehensive look at what occurred last night.”

The screens began to blur as they rewound from the live feed, passed a few bright flashes, and finally settled into what Coop assumed was occurring right before the attack. Coop was surprised they caught the whole thing on camera, but then he stopped and really thought about it, and wasn’t surprised at all. When something big ever went down in the PHA the cops always caught who did it. Now it made sense how. They were always watching.

“Gold Technologies scrubbed through their SIGINT of everything happening before and during the party, and found one call that raised a red flag.” The LCDR played a recording of a person, using voice-altering tech, negotiating fees for intel on air-car tracking. The speakers didn’t directly say what they were doing, but hindsight being twenty-twenty after the attack, everything fit.

“We might have caught it earlier, but the node this went through was processing millions of calls, and the speakers weren’t using any of the code words built into the algorithm, so we missed it.”

<Oh for three.> Coop wondered how the LCDR still had a job.

She fast forwarded the video until right before the attack and zoomed in on the area around the defense complex area. “The unknown speaker made their deal with the liberation movement, and they moved people into position here, here, here, and here under cammo netting to completely encircle the complex.” She highlighted a few nondescript locations in red. They looked just like the surrounding environment on the footage, which was what cammo netting was supposed to do.

Coop looked around the room, but no one looked like they were going to ask the obvious question, so he’d have to bite that bullet. “Where’d they get the cammo netting?”

“Stolen off a vehicle disabled in one of the voting booth bombings.” The LCDR answered without missing a beat and moved on.

She fast forwarded a little farther until the first blossom of a shoulder launched surface-to-air missile sprang to life on the holo. “From what we retrieved from the launch sites, we confirmed they were firing Javelin X’s.” A schematic of the weapons system sprang to life in front of them.

HI school had Coop memorizing a lot of different weapons systems. The Javelin X’s had been one of them, and all the stats came flooding back to him. It was an older weapons system, but a favorite of anyone who couldn’t get modern military tech. Its genius lay in its guidance system. It was the first surface-to-air system developed that allowed the firer to target anti-grav waves, which made it great for shooting down anything flying without old-school fuel thrusters. It also had IR targeting, so it could shoot down those with fuel thrusters, and a line of sight option. Weapons had grown a whole lot smarter in the hundred and fifty years since the Javelin X’s production ended, but the Commonwealth had made a lot of the weapons, and many of them had ended up in the wrong hands.

It had a maximum range of thirty kilometers, and a highly explosive warhead that would punch a hole in a Spyder if it was able to hit one. Judging by the short distance the rocket teams fired from, shooting those air cars was like shooting fish in a barrel. Coop had never seen fish in a barrel, but he assumed they were easy to kill.

Coop watched the holos continue playing. The rebels waited until a good number of air-cars were mobile before rapid firing. That was the other beauty of the Javelin X. The multiple payload missiles. A single warhead fired from the launcher, but once it locked onto its target and got within a certain distance, the warhead threw out ten smaller missiles, thus the roman numeral X in the name. The manufacturers of the original design knew it was a constant arms race to keep up with the latest defensive tech, so once the enemy figured out a way to spoof the Javelin X’s systems, the manufacturers wanted to have a backup. That backup was quantity. Point defense, a swatter, or one hell of a pilot was what you needed to get away from those missiles, and judging by what Coop saw on the holos, a lot of the VIPs didn’t have that.

“The liberation movement was smart about it. This was their golden opportunity for a decapitation strike on the planetary government and fleet personnel. They made it count, and they pulled out all the stops.”

Coop watched as an air-car expertly avoided a missile by executing a ninety-degree turn around a building that must have taxed the internal dampeners to the breaking point. Unfortunately, the missile computed that it couldn’t make the same turn and detonated once it cleared the building. The blast didn’t destroy the air-car, but it caused enough damage to the engines that an emergency landing was required, and judging by the video, at least one person was injured.”

The LCDR zoomed back out to the bigger picture where the air-cars were employing their defensive countermeasures. Those countermeasures were fairly effective despite the quantity of threats they had to deal with. Still, Coop saw several air-cars go down as fiery wrecks. He didn’t see the SRRT running for cover on the holos, but he saw the cloud of chaff covering most of the defense complex.

“Casualties?” Lt Wentworth asked.

“As of when I walked in here…fourteen, including the planetary governor, Admiral Danvers with most of his staff, Savannah City’s police commissioner, and several other local politicians and business leaders.”

“Sounds like they completed their mission.” Coop didn’t mean to say it too loud, but everyone in the room picked it up. “I’m just saying…they went for a decapitation strike, and they killed the planet’s political and military leaders. I’d be worried about local defense force ships coming under enemy control now.” Coop’s eyes looked upward. He’d never seen orbital bombardments, and he was eternally grateful for that.

“There were a few scuffles on a few ships,” the LCDR spook answered. “But it doesn’t look like the movement was able to penetrate the crews well. The cops and soldiers on the ground are a different story. We’re already receiving reports that towns, cities, and even an entire province in one case are declaring independence from the Commonwealth.”

“That’s for the local defense forces to handle.” The SGM stepped forward to retake control of the conversation. “What this whole shitstorm gives our team is a golden training opportunity. Lieutenant Commander.” He waved for the officer to continue to play the footage.

After the rocket teams rapid fired their payloads, they scattered. Spyders on alert five, were in the air within a minute and hunting them down. Three of the four teams found themselves on the business end of an air-to-surface missile or a 35mm cannon with explosive shells. However, the fourth team made it to a nearby road, and into a vehicle that hauled ass toward the city despite several occasions when a nearby Spyder could have lit them up.

“Cooper, what did I say our mission parameters as a Splitstream Rapid Response Team were?” The SGM turned on Coop.

“Uh…” Coop quickly searched his memory, “isn’t it sabotage, covert insertion, reconnaissance, and target elimination.”

“Are you asking me a question or is that your answer, Cooper?” The SGM just stood there waiting.

“That’s my answer, Sergeant Major.”

<If I’m wrong, at least I’m answering wrong with confidence.> Coop mentally shrugged and waited to get chewed out.

“Correct.” The SGM turned back to the rest of the team. “We’re going to study this intel, execute a covert insertion, recon the objective, or objectives, and when given the green light, eliminate the targets. Questions?”

Coop had an unrelated question, but he didn’t raise his hand. Everyone in the room looked like they were ready for some payback, and no one wanted to hear him ask where the nearest bathroom was. Getting the guys who’d successfully destabilized the local political and military landscape was a lot more important than the shit Coop needed to take.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 206

Benjamin Gold

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

The head of the long table was the place to be, but Ben wanted to be anywhere else. The elite of New Savannah sat around him, talking like a group of old friends, and discussing items trivially that affected the lives of millions of people. As a ship’s captain, Ben was used to making critical decisions that affected others, but he’d never heard it discussed so… nonchalantly.

“Labor contracts are wrapping up.” A bald man with sharp brown eyes was saying at his spot across for Ben and two chairs down. Since modern technology had eliminated baldness, the man’s lack of hair was a choice, not biologically predetermined. “We were able to talk down cost of living increases, but we had to give extra vacation days.”

“Readiness is at an all-time high,” the man directly across from Ben, in a black uniform with red trim, stated to the man sitting between him and Thomas Gold.

Thomas was politely listening, but Ben could tell his father’s situational awareness was finely tuned to everything around him. “Military strategy isn’t much of my forte, gentlemen. My son would know more about that.” Thomas passed the conversation off to Ben, who suddenly found himself staring at two of the most powerful men in the system. “Ben, you’ve met New Savannah’s Governor, The Honorable John Willoughby, and the head of the New Savannah militia, Admiral Mark Danvers.”

“I haven’t had the pleasure yet.” Ben nodded respectfully to both men, because reaching across the table to shake hands was bad etiquette.

“We prefer system defense force to militia, Mr. Gold,” ADM Danvers replied as he returned Ben’s nod. “Militia sounds like a junior league collection of weekend warriors. The New Savannah System Defense Force (NSSDF) has an infantry component of two hundred and fifty thousand men, and a fleet service of twice that split between a squadron of battleships, two cruiser squadrons, and a flotilla of destroyers and gunboats to help with commerce protection.”

The ADM was clearly proud of his spacers and soldiers, and he should be. Ben hadn’t seen a lot of defense forces in person, but he’d read statistics, and had access to the readiness reports like any other ship’s captain. The NSSDF was one of the better ones in the Core Worlds. Too many of the planets close to Earth or New Washington, especially when they weren’t near Blockie space, thought they were untouchable, and let their security lapse with the hopes that the Commonwealth Fleet would pick up the slack. Despite the fleet’s massive tonnage, and always growing number of ships, the galaxy was infinitely bigger. The Fleet wouldn’t be everywhere at once, and with the current war on two fronts, that was truer than ever. Some systems were finally starting to see that, and were quickly trying to arm themselves, but it wasn’t that easy. It took time to properly train soldiers and spacers, and even more to get a ship’s crew to gel and be effective in combat.

On the bright side, many soldiers and spacers who were looking at getting out of the Commonwealth Fleet, and were looking for something more stable, were finding a lot of work to pick up their former occupations in service to a single system. In several of those instances as well, corporations were stepping in to pick up the slack. Cue, the woman sitting next to Ben.

“New Savannah has a top of the line defense force, Admiral, and Blacktide greatly values the cross training opportunities we’ve had between our ships, but I for one have been dying to talk to the Hero of New Lancashire.”

Ben was thankful that the other dinner conversations covered the groan that escaped his lips, but RADM Stillwater’s scoff and eye roll weren’t as subtle.

“I’m no hero.” Ben waved off the praise.

“Of course you are,” Vanessa pushed. “Because of your actions seventy five thousand people were extracted off New Lancashire before the Windsor’s Fleet took the planet. I’d say that is pretty heroic.”

“Yeah right,” this time the RADM’s scowl wasn’t even slightly hidden. His thoughts on Ben’s actions were loud and clear.

“Still,” Ben had to stop from glaring at the RADM, “I was just doing my job. I had information, and had witnessed firsthand, what the enemy was capable of. I passed that information along to my commander, and allowed them to make the decisions regarding Fleet actions. However, with that knowledge, I was not going to allow the corporate assets I did have authority over to be destroyed. My orders to Gold’s Carrier Group was to help the people I knew were going to need help, and even with that assistance, we still didn’t get everyone out.”

“Regardless,” ADM Danvers waved away Ben’s modesty, “I’ve seen those sensor recordings, and I’ve been privy to after action reports of the Windsor’s more recent raids. You did the right thing Lieutenant Commander.”

“Thank you, sir.” Despite himself, Ben smiled.

<Maybe there’s a slot for me in the NSSDF if I get the boot from the Fleet and don’t want to go corporate quite yet.>

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and people love to Monday morning quarterback split second decisions.” Thomas reentered the conversation. “But I happen to know for a fact that people are starting to come around to the fact that you did the right thing, and I’m sure they’ll want you to continue to be involved in actions against the Kingdom of Windsor, since you have some of the most experience dealing with them diplomatically and militarily.” Thomas Gold said it all while casually taking bites of his main entree, but to Ben, it was a wild departure from the norm.

Since before Ben could remember, his father had wanted him in the business, not serving in the fleet. There was a reason that had changed, and the reason would have something to do with the benefit of Gold Technologies and the Gold family.

“Personally, I think what you did was very brave.” Vanessa threw in her two cents, but Ben was so preoccupied trying to figure out his father’s motive, he nearly missed her hand settling on his thigh. The key word was almost. Ben was distracted, not dead.

“Oh…ummm…” Ben nearly choked on his drink, coughed repeatedly, and successfully splattered bourbon down the front of his CMUs. “Shit.” He cursed under his breath, but it gave him an excuse to get up. “Excuse me gentlemen.”

Ben knew it was rude, but he got out of there as quickly as possible. First, to the restroom for a nano-spray that would easily remove the alcohol, and second, down to the opposite end of the table.

“How’s everyone doing?” He asked the rest of the SRRT team.

Jacobi shot him a look that said they needed to talk later. Ben had no idea if she’d been watching him or not, or if she’d seen Vanessa make a move, but he could feel it was going to be an interesting conversation. It wasn’t every day that a person met their idol, got a private dinner with them where they showed interest, and then the very next day got a pointed reminder that she was of a junior class, and got shuffled down to the end of the table while Ben got paired with a much more suitable, potential partner. Ben was not looking forward to that conversation.

“Excellent, sir.” The SGM smiled a little brighter due to the open bar.

“The food is excellent, sir.” The GYSGT seemed to be keeping pace with the NCOIC.

“Great, sir.” The SSG and SGT Sullivan didn’t have the rank to feel comfortable drinking more than one drink, so they were busy keeping an eye on the new junior NCOs.

“It’s been a great opportunity, sir.” SGT Berg’s smile was strained.

“Uh.” Cooper grumbled, while SGT Enders gave Ben a thumbs up, and Aiko just shrugged.

Ben shot the SGM a pointed glance concerning the junior NCOs, and despite the man’s situation, he got the message. Ben left the group of soldiers and sailors in the capable hands of the senior NCOs, while he went back to the head of the table. He still hadn’t talked to the Police Commissioner, the Lieutenant Governor, the party leaders in the planetary government’s legislature, or a slew of other important people. Ben made sure to fix a smile to his face when he returned, while at the same time directing it away from Vanessa. He didn’t want her getting any wrong ideas.

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop followed the GYSGT and Eve out into the hallway. There was constant traffic with the wait staff, but no other guests were present. It was the perfect place for Cunningham to chew their asses out.

“What the hell is going on between you two?” The NCO cut to the chase.

“Nothing, Gunney.” Eve stated before Coop could open his mouth.

“Don’t blow smoke up my ass, Berg. Everyone can see something is up. Even the Lieutenant Commander saw it in the five seconds he spent with us. Now spit it out. What’s going on?”

“Sergeant Berg is being a bit of a bitch, Gunney.” Coop took his filter off.

Despite himself, Coop braced for either the Gunney or Berg to take a swing at him. Neither did, but Eve looked mad enough to.

“Berg?” Cunningham turned to Eve.

“Nothing, Gunney, just frustrated is all.” Eve looked like she was chewing nails, but held her tongue.

Coop didn’t have that talent. “Bullshit,” he called her out. “You were just laying into me about not deserving anything and putting me down. I’ve had to deal with my own shit, it might not be ranger-level shit, but I’ve had to survive, and I don’t need you shitting on me for what I’ve done since Basic.”

“Cooper, do you think you deserve to be a sergeant?” The GYSGT calmly asked the question.

“Well…” Coop pondered.

“You most certainly do not.” She finished for him. “Neither of you do. Neither of you have the time in grade requirements. Neither of you have attended the NCO academy. Neither of you know what it means to be an NCO. So, Cooper, if she’s giving you a hard time about it, it’s because she’s right. Both of you should still be enlisted.”

Eve looked vindicated for about half a second until the Gunney turned on her. “Now, for your shitty attitude, Berg. Sometimes you get shit details handed to you that you don’t like. This is not one of them. You don’t deserve to be a sergeant, but you are. There is no taking that back. You’re an NCO with a great opportunity, so embrace it. Get the experience, get the knowledge, and when you finally get to the NCO Academy you crush it. You too, Cooper. Learn from all of this. The Sergeant Major is a fucking legend, and I’ve got a few life lessons to impart myself. So soak it up like a sponge, and don’t jerk off or make excuses that will get us all killed. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Gunney.” Their reply was just short of a shout.

“Good. Now you two hash things out quickly and get back to your seats. I’m pretty sure there will be rounds of toasts to everyone and their mother coming up.” The GYSGT executed a tight about-face and strode back into the ballroom.

Eve and Coop just stared at each other for a moment. “So…” Coop broke awkward the silence. “You don’t like Aiko.”

“I don’t have any problem with Petty Officer Lee.” Eve shot back. “My problem is with you, Coop. I don’t care what you stick your dick in. I care about how reliable you are.”

“That’s not what it looks like to me. It looks like you’re jealous that I hooked up with her once upon a time, and now you’re that one that’s being unprofessional.”

“Unprofessional,” Eve hissed, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. “Like you traipsing off to shady bars with her.”

That stopped Coop clear in his tracks, and he was pretty sure he went an unhealthy shade of white at the same time. “How…?”

“Just get your shit together, Coop. You’re on an elite team now. We all need to trust you, and one of the two people flying us around. Don’t jeopardize that, or any of us, that’s my biggest problem with you.” She stopped and the two of them locked eyes. “And… maybe I think you can do better.” She said the last bit in a rush and hurried back into the ballroom.

That left Coop alone in the hallway while waiters flowed by with the evening’s dessert. He swiped a tiramisu off a passed woman’s tray, much to her distaste, but he didn’t care.

<What the hell just happened?> Coop’s mind spun as he tried to figure everything out. <Mmm that’s good.> He contemplated as he tried to figure out how Eve knew he’d gone with Aiko to the bar in the first place.

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