Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Holy shit!” Coop’s exclamation mirrored his emotions. “This is unreal.” He pinched himself and felt pain.
Coop had never been in virtual reality before. The tech had been around for over a century, but Rats in the PHA didn’t have access to something that expensive. VR suites were common among the middle and upper class, and they were even built into homes as a luxury item. They probably weren’t as good as the military tech he was currently experiencing, but as far as entertainment went you could do a lot worse.
Coop felt the arid wind whip across his face. He could feel his eyes getting dry, and he had to blink constantly to get his tear ducts working; he could even smell the blandness in the air. <I bet this is what Mars used to look like.>
The Commonwealth’s first colony no longer had anything but a tinge of red to it. In fact, it looked like a second earth with only ten billion inhabitants. It was a paradise Coop would love to visit one day.
“Sensors indicate you have not moved.” The feminine, robotic voice was back. “You have fourteen minutes remaining, Mark Cooper.”
<Oh shit!> Mark turned his attention away from a scene that felt more real than virtual, and paid more attention to the small group of people around him.
Everyone in the small group was wearing the dusty gray smartcloth that the sergeant at the front desk wore. Most had a frightened look on their face, and a few had bloody scratches or other minor injuries. They didn’t carry any practical weapons, just a fifteen centimeter knife in a sheath on their hips. The only exception was a guy in the back.
<Now that’s what I’m talking about,> Coop grinned.
The guy was huge; easily 2.2 meters tall and completely covered in a thick dusty gray armor. In his hands was a rifle half the size of Coop. It looked like it could do some serious damage.
“Hey big guy.” The armored man turned when Coop yelled at him. “Give me your gun and get your ass across the river.”
Coop tried to sound like the sergeant who’d thoroughly schooled him earlier. He didn’t want the armored man to argue with his orders, and surprisingly he didn’t. The man walked right up to Coop, handed him the giant weapon; which had to weigh at least twenty kilos, and waded into the river.
The river wasn’t the pale blue of the Martian seas, or the dull brown of Lake Erie; but a sickly looking black. It looked like liquid tar. The armored man didn’t hesitate as he continued to walk deeper and deeper into the river. His helmeted head dipped between the waves when he was a quarter of the way across, and he disappeared from view. Coop waited for one…three…then five minutes for the man to surface, but he never did.
“What the fuck?” Coop frantically looked around at the other people in the small group. None of their expressions had changed, and none of them had moved.
Coop had already wasted eight minutes waiting on the biggest, baddest looking motherfucker in his group to get across the river. He wasted another five trying to find anything else they could use to get across. One of the guys had a hundred meters of rope, which was just enough to get across the river.
“Fucking idiot, why didn’t you say something?” Coop got in the guy’s face, but the holographic avatar just continued to look anxious and frightened.
“Can anyone swim?”
Growing up in the PHA, Coop hadn’t bothered to learn to swim The sole purpose of water was to be heavily filtered and drunk, there was no other use for a liquid that was more valuable than gold. So naturally he wasn’t the best choice to take the rope across the river.
The plan was pretty simple after that. Two people on either end would anchor the rope while everyone else swam across using the rope to avoid drowning. Once everyone was on the other side they’d use the rope to pull the last person across.
It took three minutes for the guy who could swim to make it to the other side, and by then it was too late. Small dark dots that had appeared in the distance at the ten-minute mark were now perfectly clear. They were more armored men, not in the dusty gray color of Coop’s missing man. Their armor was patterned with red, green, and brown hues. It was much better camouflage on a red planet than the Commonwealth gray.
Coop never heard them fire, but he felt the blood splatter as the head of the man beside him exploded. It reminded Coop of when he and Jimmy had dropped rotten fruit they’d stolen into the core of the PHA tower. Fifty stories and SPLAT, you couldn’t even tell what it used to be. As the dead body of the man slumped beside him, Coop couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s neck which ended in a gory stump.
The rest of the small group was quickly torn to shreds by the armored enemy. More heads exploded, whole limbs were blown off, and in one case a men’s chest cavity shattered leaving detached arms and legs lying all over the ground.
“Motherfuckers!” Coop lifted the massive rifle to his shoulder like he’d seen in the holos, aimed at a target, and fired.
One thing you never saw on the holo was the recoil, but Coop sure as hell felt it. The massive rifle slammed backward into Coop’s shoulder. He screamed as he felt bones break from the jarring force. The weapon, which was already heavier than anything Coop had shot, fell from his grip onto the red soil. Coop clutched his ruined limb to his torso, and looked back at the enemy. A zipping noise ripped past his head, and he knew that they’d taken out the guy who’d made it to the opposite shore.
The last thing Coop saw of the barren, red world was an armored enemy standing less than twenty meters from him. Coop took a small amount of comfort seeing one of the other armored men limping, but it didn’t mean that much when the guy’s rifle went off and blew a basketball sized hole where Coop’s heart used to be.
“AHHHH!” Coop yelled. He’d felt the bullet rip into him before there was another flash of light and he opened his eyes to the semi-darkness of the testing cube.
“Scenario complete.” The computerized voice announced. “Score compiled and logged in your official file. Are you ready to continue?”
Coop took deep breaths. He wanted to feel his chest and make sure there wasn’t a gaping hole in it, but his arms were still restrained by the chair. “That shit was too real,” he mumbled to himself.
“Are you ready to continue?” Coop wasn’t sure if he was. “Do you require medical attention?” The fact that the response was coded into the system was an indicator that the phantom pain he was feeling had happened before.
<Don’t be a pussy.> Coop took another deep breath. He could see his chest, and everything looked fine. The sooner he got this test over the quicker he could be out of this claustrophobic cube.
“Ready,” he answered.
“Vocalize your answer to the following question.” Coop was glad he wouldn’t be heading back into VR just yet. “In your own words describe the Expansion.”
<The Expansion?> Coop knew exactly what the question was asking; he was just waiting for clarification.
The Expansion was the all-encompassing term used to detail mankind’s expansion into space. It occurred in three waves spread over a few hundred years. The first wave started at the end of the twenty-first century, and was the most controversial. Earth was overpopulated. Twenty billion people crammed on a planet made for a fourth of that population. Resources were running low, and people were getting anxious. Things like not being able to feed your family were becoming more and more common. It was because of this unrest and lack of resources that the Commonwealth was formed; although, it wasn’t the United Commonwealth of Colonies back then.
What the consolidation of formerly independent nations did allow was the pooling of assets to build the structures and workforce needed for extra-planetary colonization. Over several decades the Commonwealth, its main rival the Eastern Block, and the European Union launched missions into the solar system. The first wave covered the colonization of what would eventually be renamed the Sol System. The birthplace of humanity.
All three nations had long standing bases on the moon; later renamed Luna, and quickly established mining operations throughout the asteroid belt. The Commonwealth took Mars and the majority of the moons around Jupiter and Saturn. The goals of the first wave were simple: ease the population of Earth; and it was successful. By the middle of the twenty second century colony flights were taking people to the partially terraformed worlds where they could make a better life than what they’d left on Earth.
It also allowed them to escape the wars. There were minor skirmishes between the three largest nations, others states, and even wealthy individuals fighting for control of the homeworld and the wealth that was filtering back to it from the new colonies. The theory in every government’s mind was if they conquered someone on Earth then you got their holdings throughout the solar system. That assumption was wrong. It took the Last Terran War, and half a billion casualties, to convince everyone that war on Earth was just going to kill off the bulk of humanity. So a compact was reacted to ensure no one would fight on the homeworld ever again, and the lull of peace spread as everyone expanded.
The fruits of the first wave became the fuel of the second. Mankind mastered faster than light travel and launched itself into the cosmos. Everyone with enough money to buy, man, and equip ships loaded them up and launched them up to the max range of their FTL drives; five hundred light years from Earth. Over a hundred worlds were terraformed and colonized, but that didn’t mean peace.
Mankind ran into the same problems it had when the Americas were discovered by Europeans. The oceans were vast and hard to travel, piracy ran rampant, and there was no shortage of wars between the European powers. The same was true of the second wave. The largest nations might have agreed to not fight on Earth, but that didn’t apply to the fledgling colonies. Like vultures, fleets of warships battled across the five hundred light year buddle of human space. It was much cheaper to come in and take a colony than to terraform one. That cost estimate didn’t include human lives.
Fear and human greed propelled mankind from the second to third wave of the Expansion. People wanted to get away from the dangers of the Core Worlds, and science allowed them to do just that. By the time Coop was born in 2414, humans had expanded to just over fifteen-hundred light years from Earth. There was still debate whether or not the third wave was over. The big nations were now a heavy presence in the Mid-Worlds, the space five hundred to a thousand light years from Earth; but private corporations, religious and individual colonization missions dominate the sparsely populated space beyond the thousand light year mark. The Rim, as it was affectionately called, was the wild west of modern civilization. The Commonwealth and its rivals were trickling in, but it was hard to colonize the territory when the possibility of pirate invasion deterred potential colonists.
Coop told all of this to the cube in a five-minute explanation. Everyone knew the barebones of the Expansion. It was taught in every school in the Commonwealth, and probably throughout the other big nations, with everyone putting emphasis on their own accomplishments. Coop made sure to wrap it up quick. He doubted that the Commonwealth military really cared that much about a history lesson.
“Thank you.” The computerized voice responded when Coop went silent. “Score compiled and logged in your official file. Are you ready to continue?”
“How long is this test?” Coop already felt irritated after fifteen minutes in VR and five rattling off his answer to an open ended question.
“On average the Commonwealth Armed Forces Standardized Aptitude Examination is completed in three hours fourteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds. Are you ready to continue?” The cube ignored Coop’s groan and continued with the test.