Two Worlds – Chapter 224

Benjamin Gold

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me,” the RADM practically growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 221

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 

<I lost to this fucking guy?> Coop fumed.

Coop was understandably pissed. In his profession you needed to train like you fought. You couldn’t half-ass it, or you wouldn’t be able to cut it when it counted. His death in this training exercise only meant his V4 shut down, but he took it personally, and to finally meet the people that killed him only made it worse.

Coop tried to take a few deep breaths, but it wasn’t working too well. At Endex, the Commonwealth company had been defeated by the system defense company with the tank’s help. This was embarrassing, and the company’s LT and GYSGT were feeling it just as much as Coop. The Commonwealth forces were supposed to be the best, and getting beaten by a jumped up bunch of weekend warriors hurt.

The LT and GYSGT of the system defense company sure weren’t pulling any punches in their gentle ribbing of their counterparts, and the three people of the tank’s crew were merciless. As the HI support from the two companies, Eve and Coop sat apart from them, which helped Coop to not jump over the table and strangle one of the tankers.

Eve placed her hand over his, which was gripping the chair to the point of warping the polyplast frame. “Don’t be a sore loser. Learn from it. I don’t know about you but I sure as hell want to know how the tank survived your attack. I would have taken the same actions you did.”

Eve had just finished when the door slid open and the exercise graders, the SGM, and Thomas Gold walked in. The soldiers stood for the system defense CMDR and Commonwealth LCDR who held their evaluations in their hands. The SGM split off to the side and took a seat with Coop and Ben.

The review was detailed as the evaluators went over the operation step-by-step with the two company commanders. The Commonwealth LT was given good marks for his situational awareness and using the terrain to his advantage and outmaneuvering the system defense force. Despite the defense force’s victory, both the evaluators knew, and made it clear, that without the tank the defense force company would have been rolled up and defeated. Not much was said about the tank, and the company commanders and NCOICs were dismissed. The SGM, Thomas Gold, Coop, Eve, and the tankers remained.

“That was a hell of a show!” Gold had kept himself composed, but now that the others were out of the room, he couldn’t help but smile. “Sergeants, let me introduce you to retired Sergeant First Class Elysa McLamb, retired Command Sergeant Major Marcus Atwell, and retired Lieutenant Colonel Donald Southland.”

<Sergeant first class, command sergeant major and lieutenant colonel? That explains a lot.> Coop thought.

Just looking at the two men and one woman it was obvious they were old. All three had blue in their eyes, which judging from the rest of their look had been administered a long time ago and had run its course.  The LTC had more in common with a gnarled tree root than a human being. His skin looked more like worn, tanned leather than flesh. All three had white hair, and more than one had dental implants. Coop was surprised they’d been able to fight.

The retired part and their ranks made them even older. The Commonwealth’s rank consolidation into the rank structure of the larger navy wasn’t recent. It was probably going on a hundred and fifty years, but soldiers and marines had fought to keep their traditional ranks long after the Commonwealth’s formation.

All of that info pieced together gave Coop a better picture of the three people in front of him and why they were here. If Coop was reading the room right, the tankers were here at Thomas Gold’s request not the SGM.

“We recruited these three veterans for their valuable skills as we resurrect a lost form of combat,” Gold continued. “They’ve been involved in the creation of the Model One Patton Main Battle Tank for the last few months. Today was our first combat simulation, and as you can tell, it was quite successful.”

Coop bit down on his tongue. He’d been killed by a proof of concept, not even a real war machine.

“We’re all very interested to know how you’ve resurrected tanks and made them relevant to modern warfare.” The SGM kept his cool.

“Certainly,” Gold hit some buttons and holos sprang to life. “The Patton, or Patty, as the three tankers are affectionately calling her, is the combination of old and new. We’ve taken the expertise given by our three battle-hardened, former tankers and mirrored it with new technology gleaned from the Hegemony. Lieutenant Colonel, if you’d like to give us some historical prospective.”

“Sure, Sir.” The old man rasped. He sounded like he was on the verge of going into a coughing fit. “Tanks went out of style because they didn’t have defenses to stand up to weapons as they continued to modernize. They became hundred-ton moving coffins, and I should know. I saw most of my last command, a battalion of fifty-six tanks, manned by good men and women, pounded into submission without ever getting to fire a shot. Tanks primary mission has always been to have a heavy, maneuverable force that could take punches and dish it back out. When tanks lost the ability to take those punches, they became obsolete.” The old LTC’s somber expression broke into a big grin. “With Mr. Gold, and this new tech, I can now tell you tanks can take that punch again, and fuck up anyone trying to give it to them.”

“We knew tanks needed to be stronger than they’ve ever been, and the new gluon power sources and shield tech have made that a possibility.” Gold stepped back in to take over from the exuberant LTC before the guy had a stroke on the spot.

“I thought all of the grants from the government went to purchasing material for the news ships and personnel?” The SGM asked, careful not to give away more info about the SRRTs to the non-vetted tankers.

“Those funds were allocated according to contracts, but now that Gold Technologies is a licensed business in the Hegemony, we’ve started to make our own purchases.” Gold ignored the frown on the SGM’s face at the revelation and continued. “The Patton’s are our first solo project with the new tech, and the system defense force has been kind enough to let us put her through her paces during their training exercises.”

<Which is why we didn’t know about them going into this.> Coop surmised.

“Now, what we’ve done with the Patton’s is create a new mobile and protective platform to put superior firepower down range while supporting the regular infantry.” Gold turned on his salesman mode. “We’ve incorporated two layers of shielding into a Patton. The first layer is to protect the tank itself. As Sergeant Cooper learned firsthand, it is more than capable of shrugging off multiple hyper-velocity missile strikes. It would take repeated pounding by one of the HI’s 250mm cannons to break through those shields, and with counterbattery railguns and countermeasures, on top of anti-grav maneuverability, we’re confident the tank would be able to avoid attacks as well.”

Coop was impressed. He knew that simulated projections and the real deal were two very different things, but that left the elephant in the room.

“The big concern is still spaceborne capabilities,” Gold continued like he’d read Coop’s mind. “We think that same maneuverability protects the Patton’s from kinetic rounds. A direct hit would likely destroy the tank, but with the time in flight we’re confident in the tanks evasive abilities. With that covered, energy weapons become the focal point. Deployment will always need to be considered in systems where the Commonwealth doesn’t have control of the orbitals, but our tests suggest that the tank’s shield could survive a direct hit from a battlecruiser-sized warship and keep on coming. The dispersion of the beam weapons through the atmosphere is what makes us so confident in our speculation.”

<You think the tank can take a hit from a battlecruiser and keep on chugging. Dream on.> Coop didn’t believe the sales pitch, but the titan of industry was already moving on.

“The second layer of shielding is to provide cover to the trailing infantry forces from indirect fire; like what the good Sergeant Cooper tried to rain down on the system defense force during the exercise.” Gold gave Coop a nod. “The second shield isn’t as strong as the tank’s main shield, but it allows for adaptability to the mission. The shield can expand and condense from a few meters around the tank to one hundred and fifty meters. The more the shield is condensed, the stronger it is.”

“Tanks have been providing cover for infantry since their inventions. This is just an extension of that.” The retired CSM threw in his two cents. “I can also speak from personal experience that they handle like a dream. Anti-grav makes most terrain passable. The Patton’s are pretty light for tanks, only fifty-five tons, and can reach an impressive one hundred and eighty kilometers per hour at full speed. My aging back can also confirm they’re a smooth ride.” The CSM’s comment got a chuckle from the rest of the tank crew and Mr. Gold.

“Sergeant McLamb, do you want to talk about what the tank is offensively capable of.”

“Sure,” the SFC’s voice was surprisingly high-pitched. “As far as my experience indicates, the Patton is a lighter tank than has been fielded in the past. The main gun is only one hundred and twenty five millimeters, but it’s capable of firing several different types of armaments. You’ve got your standard fire-and-forget rounds, which can be anything from anti-tank, HE, to anti-personnel. It also has smart rounds, STRATNET guided to hit within a meter of a certain point. These are great to limit civilian casualties, but none of those two compare to the final mode. It’s the fucking shit.” The woman smiled at her other two crewmembers.

“We were able to have a research team do a walk through on a Hegemony planet…”

“You’ve had interaction on Hegemony worlds!” The SGM’s calm broke. “The Prime Minister has dictated that the government is going to make first contact with further races to ensure continuity of diplomacy!”

“I am well aware, Sergeant Major,” Gold didn’t look bothered by the senior NCO’s outburst. “It was a Twig storage planet. No new contact was made with any other Hegemony species, so we are within the Prime Minister’s edict.” He motioned for the SFC to continue.

“It’s called a gravitational cannon or something like that, but we call it the BitchSlapper, or BS for short.” Coop couldn’t help but laugh at the SFC’s pet name. “Laugh now,” she shot back. “It took you out in one shot.” Her comment sobered him up.

“The only downside is Patty only has a ten-round capability for the BS before it needs a serious recharge and can affect other systems. I don’t know the science behind it, I’m a gunner not a nerd, but it’s got something to do with using anti-grav to condense a lot of energy into something we can shoot out of the cannon. It’s a fire-and-forget projectile, and doesn’t look like much coming out of the tube, but when it hits…” the SFC brought her hand down on the table with a loud SMACK, “you’ll remember it. Just like when you’re momma smacked you upside the head for being a dumbass, Patty will smack an enemy into nothing.”

The SFC didn’t spend much time on the 8mm gun on the exterior hull, as well as the 20mm launcher, or the circular laser repeaters on each of the tank’s four corners. Coop paid attention to those repeaters. They could be used for offensive or defensive operations. He hated to admit it, but these new tanks were beasts.

<I’m still calling BS on the BS.> Coop put his foot down.

Gold must have seen the expression written on his face. “We’re doing some test fires in a few days over on Richmond Hill. You’re more than welcome to come. The Rear Admiral will also be in attendance. Once we get all of the kinks worked out of the system we’ll be taking orders from the Commonwealth.”

Coop didn’t know how he thought about that. Once the Commonwealth started fielding them, every other army would want them as well. Coop was comfortable with the status quo, and being the biggest motherfucker on the field of battle. A tank ended that monopoly, and put his ass at even more risk. That was the last thing he needed in his life.

His attention was pulled off Gold by his PAD chiming. One look at the number and another look at the SGM got him dismissed. This was the call he’d been waiting for.

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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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Two Worlds – Chapter 205

Noah Grisham

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

The parking attendant sprinted across the lot. His PAD showed him exactly where the car he was supposed to retrieve was parked, but there was a sea of sleek luxury models between the young man and his goal. He needed to move fast enough that the wealthy people whose leg work he was doing would tip well, but not fast enough that he got his uniform all wrinkled. The rich people also wouldn’t tip well if he looked like a slob.

<Do you want your car fast or not?  Make up your mind!> he fumed. It had been a frustrating night.

This whole job was very last minute. Some corporate big wig had rolled into town and wanted to throw a big party for Election Day. Naturally, that meant that every party planning business in the city immediately jumped and bent over backwards. The realization that it was at the defense complex made it trickier due to security, but that just meant an incentive bonus for anyone who had the clearance to work. The attendant had spent two years in the local defense fleet as an enlisted spacer. That meant he spent two years cruising around on patrols watching for pirates and Blockie invasions. He’d never seen either, but it helped him save up money for the Associates Degree he was working on, and got him some tuition aid options that weren’t available to everyone else. He just did jobs like the parking attendant gig to have some spending cash.

“Bingo.” He found what he was looking for, a sleek, luxury model air-car, which was hovering off the ground even in park mode.

The car accepted his GIC as a temporary user and slid open the door. The attendant couldn’t help but sigh as he sank into the driver’s seat. The nano-fabric conformed to his body, while the environmental systems measured his biometrics and adjusted the cabin to what his body found most pleasant. He wanted to sit there for a little while, but each second he dawdled was a few bucks off his tip, so he put it in reverse and back up.

THUMP

“What the hell?” The attendant quickly pulled forward and looked in the rear-view camera to see an unmoving body behind him. “Shit!” He quickly jumped out, completely ignored the fact that the collision detection sensors should have alerted him to someone behind the vehicle, and auto braked to avoid such an accident.

“Buddy, are you…” the question ended as something sharp moved into place just below his Adam’s apple, and pressed against his skin just enough to draw a trickle of blood.

“Don’t make a sound,” a cold, hard voice, whispered down at him.

The attendant didn’t need to look behind him to feel that the guy was tall and broad. The man who stepped in front of him was not.

“What’s going on here?” The short, slender man asked.

“I’m grabbing someone’s car,” the attendant practically pleaded.

“Not what are you doing. What is going on here?” The man repeated while gesturing at all the cars and over his shoulder at the defense complex.

“It’s some fancy party some rich guy is throwing. Please…I don’t know anymore. I just park cars.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.” The short guy gave a nod to the big guy, and for a merciful second, the attendant thought he was free.

Then the big man dug the knife into his throat, and easily sawed through skin, arteries, and into his windpipe with a single slice. The attendant gave a death-gurgle as his hands shot up to stop the bleeding, but it was already too late. He’d be dead in under a minute.

Able tossed him to the ground like yesterday’s mail and made sure to stash him between some cars.

“Smitty, get your cantankerous ass over here!” Able barked, eliciting a raised eyebrow from Noah for the use of the word ‘cantankerous’.

Smitty was a new edition to the crew. He always had a frown on his face, and looked pissed off at the world in general. What the other pirate did have going for him was that he cleaned up well.

“Take his clothes and go play car parker.” Able ordered as he tossed a nano-solution to remove the blood from the white shirt, black vest, and black pants. The smart-cloth would readjust to Smitty’s size without prompting.

As Smitty stripped down and changed, Able approached Noah. “What now, Boss?” They’d dispersed the rest of their small crew into buddy teams and formed a loose perimeter that would avoid drawing any attention while still providing some security, and advanced warning, if anyone was heading in their direction.

“Now we use this to our advantage.” Noah’s mind was on two different tracks. First, was how to make the best of this situation, and second, was that some rich asshat in that building was probably involved in robbing him of an eight-figure payday. He explained his plan to Able, so he could give the orders.

“Noah, get in touch with those revolutionaries we interacted with. Tell them we can give them real-time targeting data on these wealthy assholes, but they’re gonna have to pay for it. Smitty, you’re going to fill in as a parking guy and put trackers on anyone that looks important.”

“How will I know who’s important?” Smitty asked, as the clean smart-cloth spread across his chest.

“If a gaggle of these fuckers are surrounding someone, then they’re a VIP.”

“Boss,” Noah played the submissive role. “Some of these cars do randomized scans that search for bugs like the ones we’re going to place. We should probably program the devices to stay on standby mode until they’ve reached a certain altitude or traveled a certain distance before activating. Or we can set up a spotter team to remote activate them. This way they’ll avoid detection on a cursory scan” The suggestions were actually orders.

“Good thinking.” Able nodded. “Do that, Smitty.”

“Sure thing, Cap’n,” the man grumbled.

“And, Smitty…”

“Yeah…”

“Try to smile. These people get tipped for being nice.” Able advised.

Smitty attempted a smile, and Noah cringed. It would be a miracle if they could pull this off.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“Why are there so many forks?” Coop was seated, along with the other few hundred guests, at the big-ass table, and he’d never been so confused about how to eat before in his life.

Coop didn’t even know that forks were supposed of go on the left-hand side of his plate, and now he was staring at five of them. A waitress deposited a salad in front of him with an impressive flourish, but Coop was too busy to even admire the tightness of her shirt.

There was probably a method to the madness of the seating chart. That much Coop figured out. First off, Thomas Gold was all the way at one side of the table. Ben Gold was sitting up with him, along with someone that the LT was calling Vanessa Black. She seemed a little miffed that the attractive, dark-skinned, blue-in-her-eyes woman was sitting next to the LCDR, while the rest of the military personnel present, except the RADM, were at the opposite end of the table. Coop felt for the LT, but he had his own shitstorm brewing.

On Coop’s right was Eve, and on his left was Mike. Next to Mike was Aiko, and Coop was wondering if the universe was conspiring against him. At first, it seemed like a good idea that Mike was a buffer, but now if felt like someone, or something, was fucking with him because Aiko looked even more pissed that he was sitting next to Eve and not her.

<I can’t catch a break.> Coop went to pick up the fork closest to his plate: a thin, three-pronged thing that looked like the runt of the litter.

“Not that one.” Eve cut him off. If Coop had gone any farther, he swore she would have slapped his hand like he was a child. “Start from the outside and work your way in. The salad fork should be on the far left.”

“Who has a fork just for salad,” Coop grabbed the correct fork and stabbed in repeatedly into the pile of green leaves to get a healthy portion size. The repeated clanging of his fork against the bottom of the plate drew stares.

“For fuck’s sake,” Eve sighed, as she grabbed Coop’s hand.

Coop would have loved for there to have been some spark of familiar memory that shot through his balls and heart, but no such shock came. Instead, she ripped the fork out of his hand, and showed him how to eat all sophisticated.

“You’ve got to slow down, take your time, savor the taste, and don’t damage the place setting.” Eve shoved the fork back into his hand and turned back to his own food.

“You seem to know an awful lot about this?” Coop questioned, as he did what he was instructed. He could feel his stomach grumbling as he picked through the rabbit food.

“I did my research before we came,” Eve replied without looking at him.

“You researched how to eat?” Coop laughed, but was rudely interrupted by Mike jabbing his elbow into his ribs.

“No, I researched all of this.” Eve’s eyes wandered around the biggest dinner party Coop had ever seen, including on the holo shows about ancient earth kingdoms. “The Gold’s are known for extravagant parties. I expected something like this, so I made sure I knew how to handle myself. That’s your first lesson of training, Cooper, figure out what you’re about to get in to, and then learn everything you can about that before you get there. It’ll save you from looking like an ass, or better yet, save your life.”

“We’re the same rank you know.” Coop’s ego took a bit of a hit, and he had to reassert himself.

“Neither of us belongs at this rank. We’re only here because of an executive order, and honestly, you should probably still be a PFC with your record.” Eve’s comment only stung Coop’s ego more.

“I made corporal fair and square,” Coop grumbled back.

“And with all the disciplinary things I’ve seen, I’m surprised you didn’t get busted back down,” she countered.

“Hey, I was proven innocent in that court martial.” Coop stabbed his salad fork at her for emphasis.

“You were not guilty. That’s far from innocent.” Eve cut Coop’s argument off at the knees, and left Coop fuming. So, fuming, he went back to stabbing his fork into the plate to get the last few bits of salad.

A crack was amplified by the room’s acoustics as his fork split off a decent-sized chunk of the plate.

“Cooper,” SSG Hightower was sitting on the opposite side of Aiko. “Unfuck yourself before I put my foot so far up your ass it comes out with bits of that salad attached to it.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” Coop grumbled, while Eve shook her head at him.

<I hate fancy people shit.> Coop looked to his left, in the hopes of getting some positive reinforcement from the only other girl at the table that he knew couldn’t stand this uppity shit like him.

All he got from Aiko was a glare. Apparently, him talking with Eve wasn’t sitting well. It didn’t matter if it was what fork he was supposed to use and pointless crap like that.

<Give me a break.> He sighed, just as the fish course arrived.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 204

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“We’re going to be late,” Coop grumbled from the passenger seat as he changed.

Aiko had seen him naked, so he wasn’t worried about that, but people might peep in from passing cars, and Aiko’s vehicle was old enough it didn’t have auto-tint on the windows.

“No we aren’t,” Aiko replied, with a barely contained eye roll, that lingered for a second on his junk.

Everything at the seedy bar had gone off without a hitch, but on the way back toward the defense complex they hit traffic. Traffic wouldn’t have been surprising, but this traffic was heading in the wrong direction. Neither Aiko nor Coop had planned for this when they went out to make a few grand. The consequence of that was going to be the SGM’s wrath if they were late to Gold’s shindig.

“We’re going to be late.” Coop repeated himself when they sat idle for five whole minutes.

“Stop being a pussy!” Aiko snapped and glared. “I’m sorry if we’re going to be late for your girlfriend’s little party.”

Coop’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t think of what to say. <Talk about waiting for the right moment to bring up a sensitive topic.> He wisely didn’t say that out loud.

“She’s not my girlfriend.” Coop knew he sounded like a thirteen year old when saying it, but he had nothing better that wouldn’t get him punched in the nuts.

“Don’t lie to me.” Aiko’s voice dropped to a deadly octave. “We’ve been through a lot of shit, and are going to go through even more. I’m not a blind idiot, so don’t treat me like one.”

Coop thought he heard a twinge of hurt in her voice, but the look on her face dispelled that thought. “She’s not my girlfriend,” he repeated with conviction. “We did it six months ago after Basic, but we aren’t a couple.”

“You could have fooled me.” Aiko gave him one last glare and turned her attention back to the road.

Coop tried in vain to reengage her in conversation, but she wasn’t having any of it. All of this was catching him totally off guard. He’d seen her shrug off a whole lot worse than this with nothing but a haughty smile. Hell, he’d been pretty sure she knew he was sleeping around on New Lancashire while they were boning. Now, all of a sudden, she met one of his exes, who wasn’t really even an ex, and she was all bent out of shape. <Women?> He didn’t have any other explanation for it.

Traffic continued all the way to the defense complex, and they soon saw why. “Is that a valet stand?” They were the first words Aiko spoke since the fight.

Sure enough, a small contingent of attractive men and women in black slacks, white shirts, and black vests with the Gold Technologies insignia on the left breast were scanning GICs and taking hover cars to park somewhere on the base.

<If I boosted one of those I’d be set for the year.> Coop watched as some of the latest model luxury brands stopped at the stand, and expensively dressed couples emerged.

“Son of a bitch,” Aiko’s curse brought him out of a small daydream of him driving the latest Porsche through New Savannah’s evening breeze, with the air whipping through his hair, and a beautiful girl in the passenger seat. The woman in his mind’s eye looked like a blend of Eve and Aiko, which wasn’t helping his case with the woman in the driver’s seat. “All the spots are taken.” She let fly a string of curse words as she wove through the lot.

“Just take it to the valet stand, my treat.” Coop hoped the offer might start to repair whatever rift he’d unknowingly created with Aiko, but she just grunted and got back into line.

“Welcome to the Gold Technologies Election Day Soiree,” the man who stepped up to Aiko’s side door smiled like he was about to get laid for the first time. His smile only faltered slightly when he saw the car was a junker and had two people in casual clothes in it.

“Thanks,” Aiko got out and tossed him the keys.

“Don’t scratch the paint or she’ll rip your dick off.” Coop tipped the guy a ten dollar chip. “You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.” He made sure the guy knew the gravity of the situation before following her toward the large building at the center of the complex.

“How much did you tip?” Aiko walked close enough to him that it said she might be thinking about forgiving him.

“Ten bucks,” Coop’s grin was cut short when her fist hit him in the kidney. “What the hell?!”

“Ten dollars. I’ll be lucky to get my car back with its tires still attached!” she fumed.

“What did I do?” Coop called after her.

She didn’t answer, but he was pretty sure ten bucks wasn’t doing the trick, which blew his mind, because the number of cars he saw times ten would net those workers a chunk of cash for doing nothing more than parking cars. In Coop’s mind, that was more than adequate compensation.

<Only one way to find out.> Coop dropped back a little to the elderly couple walking behind him. They had blue specks in their eyes, and hair that had gone all white, which meant they were probably closing in on their mid-one hundreds, maybe even two hundred.

“Hey, buddy, what did you tip?” Coop’s question took the man by surprise.

“What…how…” he blubbered for a second while his wife looked around like she wanted to call security.

“This isn’t complex math, how much did you tip the valet guy?” Coop frowned with impatience, and the man relented.

“Two hundred,” he stated.

“What the fuck!” Coop couldn’t help himself. He’d been solidly laid for half that amount. “I’m in the wrong business.” He shook his head and left the elderly couple to mumble to themselves about riff-raff or whatever the hell rich people did.

By the time Coop reached the front door Aiko was already inside. If he was honest with himself, he preferred it that way. Eve might not be his girlfriend, but he didn’t want to show up with Aiko like she was his girlfriend. They were more fuckbuddies than in a relationship, that term was strictly reserved for business. Coop’s head hurt just thinking about it, so he didn’t. He followed the throng of people entering the front doors. Instead of heading in the direction of the lift that would take them down to the lab where Argo was getting an upgrade, he went the opposite direction. He didn’t make it halfway down the hallway before coming to a halt. People were lined up at the door, and some loud old guy was shouting out their names before they entered the room.

<I thought this was supposed to be a small get together?> Evidentially, a Gold’s idea of a small get together was a few hundred of the planet’s elite gathered in a ballroom that looked like it belonged in a castle. <Where did this room come from?> Coop had been in this building a few times. He’d even been down in this area before, but he’d never seen a room this big and filled with this much crap. It was even more impressive since he was pretty sure Thomas Gold decided yesterday to throw this party, and everyone on the planet had bent over backward to attend.

Coop was so busy taking in the spectacle that he missed stepping up in front of the old guy at the entrance. “Sergeant Mark Cooper, United Commonwealth of Colonies Infantry.” The man announced in a voice way too powerful for his body.

A light smattering of applause swept through the room. Apparently, it was nice to clap for people. Coop gave a half-hearted wave, but his full attention was pulled to what was at the center of the room. Surrounded by people, and nearly the entire diameter of the large room, was a table hovering just off the ground. Hundreds of seats surrounded the table; where silverware made of gold, authentic crystal cups, and gold-rimmed plates threated to crush even the best anti-grav systems.

Coop ignored the people and went right to the table. He really wanted to see if it was real gold, but a hand grabbed his shoulder before he could pick up a knife.

“Cooper, come over here.” Lieutenant Commander Gold steered him toward the SRRT team that was huddled in a corner, clearly not knowing what to do. Even the SGM looked out of place in all of this opulence.

Coop smiled in Eve’s direction, but got a neutral glance. That was an improvement. Unfortunately, Aiko also saw it, and her neutral glance turned into a glower. <So much for that threesome.> Coop just shook his head and went to stand in the corner with everyone else.

 

***

 

Benjamin Gold

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

Ben made sure to arrive at the party early. It was standard operating procedure for one of his father’s get togethers. He always played them off like they were nothing, but they usually cost millions of dollars, and drew a planet’s most privileged like moths to a flame. It was how Thomas Gold showed dominance. He acted like the party was nothing at all, while to everyone else it was the social engagement of the year.

“Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold, United Commonwealth of Colonies Fleet, Gold Technologies.” Ben couldn’t help but roll his eyes as the man with a truly powerful voice announced his presence like it was medieval Europe.

There were only about two dozen people present, but all of them turned toward to entryway at the mention of the Gold name.

“Lieutenant Jacobi Wentworth, United Commonwealth of Colonies Infantry.” Since Jacobi was on his arm, she drew a lot of attention as well.

“Just keep walking. Don’t get tied down in conversation with anyone, just say your hellos and keep moving. What is it you grunts say: shoot, move and communicate? The same principle applies here.”

“Who knew infantry tactics and elite socialization had so much in common,” she joked as she waved at a few people looking to intercept them, but kept moving. “Where are we going?”

“Where does anyone go to make dull conversation bearable? . . . The bar.” Ben’s long stride didn’t falter as he approached his destination.

The bar in question went the width of the room and was manned by nearly a dozen smartly-dressed, attractive bartenders. Ben took a seat in the far corner, so he could see the entirety of the room, and ordered drinks.

“Oh my god!” Jacobi exclaimed after taking a sip of her drink. “This is the best Cosmo I’ve ever tasted.”

“Only top shelf from dad…speaking of.” Ben righted himself and mentally prepared.

“Benjamin!” His father called out as he led a young woman toward them. “There you are.”

“Here I am.” Ben smiled more for the sake of the woman than his father.

“I’d like to introduce you to Doctor Vanessa Black. Dr. Black, my youngest son, Benjamin.” Then, like the wind, Thomas dissolved into the background to mingle.

<Seriously.> Ben kept a smile on his face, but inside he was steaming. His father only ever introduced people to him for two reasons. The first was related to business, which meant, despite Ben’s insistence, his father was trying to drag him more into Gold Technologies’ operations. The second was even worse then the first. Vanessa Black was an attractive woman, which made it a distinct possibility that he was trying to arrange something between his son and her, despite Jacobi standing right next to him.

“Vanessa Black, of Blacktide Armaments?” Surprisingly, it was Jacobi who broke the ice.

“Yes,” Vanessa smiled back, but Ben thought there might be a little something extra concealed on her face. “My father is the CEO, I’m just the planetary manager here on New Savannah. We are the most productive planet in the company, but daddy didn’t want to bring me right on at corporate. He always said field experience is important.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Now Jacobi was smiling. “Ranges and field problems can only do so much to train you, but nothing really compares to actual combat.” Now, Ben was pretty sure Jacobi’s face was concealing more than she was saying.

The conversation between the two women was nothing but cordial, but Ben had the feeling more was going on than he suspected. “So, Vanessa, how did you gain the vote?” It was a common question to ask on Election Day, and since it was an Election Day party, Ben thought it was appropriate.

“I got it for doing five years with Doctors without Borders. I split the time between the contested systems between the Maccabees and New Caliphate, the natural disaster back in the Canberra System in 2422, and a year on New Sparta tending to whoever the City States would let us.” Vanessa smiled back at Jacobi, and Ben was certain something unsaid was passing between the two women.

“That must have been interesting.” Ben smiled and took a deep pull of his drink.

“It was interesting and rewarding. After getting my MD from Harvard Medical School on Earth, and MBA from New Capitol University on New Washington, I needed to gain some experience. Like you said, Lieutenant, school and training can only do so much.”

Jacobi just nodded and took a healthy sip of her own drink.

“Between you and me,” Vanessa leaned in closer. “I think your father wants to make some sort of deal with Blacktide. I don’t know what yet, but I think half of this party is to show off for me and the few members of the board who could make it.”

Ben had read up on the major players in the New Savannah system before arriving so he would be prepared for conversations like this. That was something positive his father had drilled into him since childhood.  Blacktide Armaments was nowhere near the size of Gold Technologies. It still had government contracts creating some shipboard weaponry, but its money maker was in security. It had filled the niche of protecting small and medium sized shipping companies for over a century. Some independent systems even supplemented their militia forces with Blacktide’s corporate fleet. As with any corporation of a particular size, Blacktide was also in other avenues of business, but its name was primarily linked to its ability to project its corporate forces anywhere at any time to meet their client’s needs. Whether that client was a regional warlord who wanted to conquer an embattled planet, or a church group on missionary work that wanted protection, it didn’t matter to Blacktide. Ben had several gigabytes of bad press that the company got itself into once every decade, but being able to point to someone like Vanessa as an example of their moral compass was an important tool in the company’s kit.

<And with the new technology the Hegemony is bringing in, dad wants to gobble up that market share.> Ben thought through the situation.

“Vanessa, to be honest, my father doesn’t do deals. He does acquisitions.” Ben didn’t feel like he needed to keep his hypothesis a secret, and judging by the look on her face, Ben wasn’t the only one who’d come to that conclusion.

“Blacktide didn’t meet the threshold to do business with the Hegemony, but Gold Technologies did. If we sell to your father for a handsome price, and stock options, we’ll be getting in with Gold right before it explodes with new tech. Gold is already one of the biggest companies in the galaxy, if you add new contracts with the aliens to that, it’s going to be catapulted to the biggest. I’m willing to get in on that.”

<Oh no!> That’s when it hit Ben. His father had introduced him to the very beautiful, very connected, and very single Vanessa Black for not one of his usual reasons, but both. He wanted Blacktide Armaments, and he wanted a firm alliance between two corporate families: the Gold’s and the Black’s.

He looked at Jacobi, who looked like she’d tasted something sour, and then he looked at Vanessa, who was smiling in apparent victory. On the scales by which the people with blue in their eyes judged themselves, Vanessa checked off all the boxes: successful corporate family, all the right enhancements, all the right schools, all the right degrees, and all the right career experiences. Jacobi on the other hand, was a mere infantry LT, with a Bachelor’s degree, no family wealth, and no corporate experience. In Vanessa’s, and Ben’s father’s eyes, Jacobi might be a good hiring opportunity, but she was not girlfriend or marriage material.

“Sergeant Mark Cooper, United Commonwealth of Colonies Infantry.” Ben hadn’t noticed the ballroom start to fill up since the start of their conversation, but he heard the announcer loud and clear.

“Excuse us, Vanessa, that’s one of our soldiers that we need to go wrangle.” Ben remained polite as he grabbed Jacobi’s hand and dragged her away from the bar and toward Coop, who looked suddenly very interested in the silverware.

Ben quickly scooped him up and took him to where the rest of the SRRT was huddled. In this crowd there was safety in numbers.

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