Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
Chow was followed by a run, a run that Coop had to lead because Eve wasn’t back yet. The run wasn’t slow or fast, it was the same methodical pace they’d been training at for the last week. Coop and the rest of second squad easily fell into the rhythm. Their feet slapped the pavement in unison, and they shouted out their cadences like a well-rehearsed choir. They ran five kilometers, and thanks to the metabolic enhancers and nanites they did it easily.
The only difference today was the direction that they ran. Usually, runs during PT were in a loop out and back to the barracks. Other runs were to and from the chow hall. Today they ran away from both of those, and away from the long line of identical white buildings of the main training center. Today they ran towards a small mountain in the distance.
<That can’t be good.> It was the only thought Coop had as they trotted closer and closer to the natural landmark.
“Company halt. You have three minutes to relieve yourselves. Execute.” SSG Cunningham completed the five kilometer run at an odd looking contraption.
Coop would have spent a few more seconds looking it over, but they only had three minutes and he needed to take a shit. He thought that Army food would have stuffed him up, but he was wrong. He was pretty sure they mixed mild laxatives in with the metabolic enhancers and nanites. <I’ll have to ask Eve about it.>
Coop very much missed having their knowledgeable squad leader around, because whatever they were about to do he didn’t want the responsibility if they failed.
“Ten…nine…eight…” the SSG started to call just as Coop’s smartcloth was reknitting. “Fall in.”
Everyone was in formation when she hit zero, even Davenport. Even the squad dipshit wasn’t stupid enough to be late.
“Recruits,” the SSG smiled at them all. “Welcome to the Grinder.”
<Shit.> Coop’s apprehension was confirmed.
The Grinder was Stewart-Benning Training Center’s version of an obstacle course. A two kilometer long run-obstacle hybrid training device that looked just as bad as it sounded. The SSG brought up a holo-display that outlined the dozens of obstacles they were going to have to master to get through the Grinder.
<What are we fucking ninjas?> Coop’s jaw dropped more than once as the obstacles were explained.
“The Grinder is meant to cover situations that you might encounter on real-life battlefields.” The SSG pointed at the first obstacle in front of them.
It was a series two dozen angled, covered pads hovering over a small pond of black liquid. “For instance,” the SSG jogged over to the obstacle, “you might find yourselves on a planet where you need to move from one area to another without touching the ground. It might be a volcanic world, or their local equivalent of liquid is more acid than water. Either way you and your squad need to move from point A to point B.” Despite getting farther away the instructor’s voice sounded like she was still standing in front of the company.
With a slight running start SSG Cunningham demonstrated the obstacle. She easily hopped to the first pad, where she landed on it with one foot. She didn’t stay their long. She took the force of the jump on that leg, bending to absorb the blow, and then pushed off. She landed on the second pad, which was slightly ahead and to the right of the first pad, with the opposite leg and repeated the process.
“That doesn’t look too hard,” Coop muttered to Nate who was standing next to him.
The SSG seemed to effortlessly hop between the pads until she reached the other side. “Just make sure you don’t fall.” She pointed at the black water below. “I guarantee you won’t enjoy it. Now move around the side and jog to the next obstacle.”
The next hour was spent going over all the obstacles. They had to climb up normal and warped walls, walls that were much taller than even the giant SSG. They had to swing from traditional monkey bars, and navigate their way across upside down, slanted sections of polyplast where their only grips looked like small rocks bolted to the durable plastic. There were sections, some as long as a few hundred meters, where they had to crawl below a laser grid. They had to climb and swing from ropes, run on top of spinning logs, and all while avoiding the black water that seemed to be everywhere.
“How you complete this course is up to you.” The SSG addressed them from the end of the course, where the last obstacle was a series of doors that had to be kicked down to reach the finish line. “I’ll leave the decision up to your squad leaders. But be advised that you will be evaluated as a squad. Everyone in a squad might finish in the top ten, but if one of you finishes in last your squad finishes last. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant?”
“Good,” she scanned their faces like she was looking for something. Coop wasn’t sure if she found it or not.
They ran back to the start of the course where the SSG didn’t give them much time to rest.
“You have twenty minutes to plan. You may ask questions or consult the holo-display to remember aspects of the obstacles. Your time starts now.”
“Let’s go,” Coop called out, rushing towards the holo-display. He sure as hell didn’t remember everything they’d talked about over the last hour, and there was only so much space around the electronic terminal.
<Where the hell are you, Eve?> He had just enough time to wonder.
The one thing he did know was that it would severally dampen his chances of getting that sweet ass if he lost this challenge. She tried to hide it, but Coop knew Eve was a sore loser.
“We should do it individually,” Davenport spoke up before anyone else. “I can get up those walls no problem. We’ll be faster this way.”
“You might be able to get up those walls, but Harper might not be able to.” Mike cut him off.
“Mike’s right,” Coop seconded the other team leader’s opinion. “We could all finish in the top eight, but if Harper finishes last then we’re all last.”
“Fuck you guys, I can do this.” Harper shot back with a glare.
“Gladly.” Davenport smiled creepily.
“Shut the fuck up and focus.” Coop cut them both off. “Let’s figure this out. We’ve only got twelve more minutes.”
Eleven minutes later they had a plan. They’d already covered running the course individually, and that wasn’t an option. The shorter people couldn’t get up the walls without help. On the opposite side of the spectrum, they couldn’t run as a group either. They would slow everyone down to the pace of the slowest person, who as much as she denied it was Harper.
After a lot of bitching and moaning they settled on running it as battle buddies. The two-person teams would navigate the course together, so Coop did his best to break them up into strong pairs. Harper went with Mike, the strongest guy in the squad. He’d be able to throw her over the wall if he wanted.
The decision was practical and personal. Harper and Mike kind of had a thing going. He was one of her frequent “clients”, but she never charged him like she did everyone else. It was a beneficial relationship, and for one brief second it reminded Coop of Hailey. <Focus.> He pushed the idea to the back of his mind.
It didn’t help that the last time he’d gotten any female attention was weeks ago.
After pairing the weakest and strongest together, Coop had to sort through the middle. He put Nate, who was reliable, with Olivia. She talked regularly with her boyfriend in the company ahead of them, so she knew some tricks with the course. Coop hoped those tricks would give them an advantage because she was the second slowest next to Harper.
That left Coop, Emma, Davenport, and John.
“I’ll go with Davenport,” John stated after a long awkward moment.
Coop saw John as a calming force in the squad. He was smart, levelheaded, and practical. He was smaller and thinner than the rest of the guys, and didn’t seem to have done much physical activity before enlisting. And he had enlisted of his own free will, unlike Coop.
“Thanks, John.” Coop meant it. John was probably the third weakest link in the squad, and he was sure to get shit from Davenport through the entire course.
“That leaves you and me, Emma.”
Of all the people in second squad Coop knew the least about Emma. She only stood two places down from Coop in formation, but if he was talking to anyone it was usually Eve or Nate. He thought she was close with Olivia, he saw them talking a lot together, but they stood next to each other so it could mean nothing.
“Yeah.” Her voice sounded small and fearful, which was surprising.
Emma was a powerfully built woman. She was only eight to ten centimeters shorter than Coop. She had thick, strong limbs, was fast enough to stay in the middle of the pack during runs, and hadn’t done anything to get in trouble. Since Coop had nearly killed himself with Harper’s help during isolation week, that made Emma smarter in his mind.
None of that explained why she was so timid around Coop.
“One minute!” the SSG announced.
Coop pushed his questions about Emma to the rear of his mind and focused on the course ahead of them.
“Coop!” They had about thirty seconds left before starting when Eve sprinted up to him, shouldering other people out of the way. “Get me up to date.”
<Where the fuck have you been?> Flashed through his mind, but there wasn’t enough time to get an answer and explain things to her.
“Obstacle course,” he pointed. “Two kilometers with dozens of obstacles. We’ve reviewed them and are doing the course in two-man teams.” He pointed at the three teams behind him and Emma. “We’re starting soon.”
As if on cue the newly arrived PO3 Janney started to count down from ten.
“Good work,” she gave John a sympathetic wince before turning back to the course. “I’ll run with you and Emma. I’m a quick study.”
“Execute!” The PO3 yelled, and eighty-three recruits surged forward.
They bottlenecked instantly.
The first obstacle of pads you had to jump between could only be done one person at a time, maybe two if the jumps were extremely well-coordinated. Second squad was near the front of the mass of bodies, but they had to watch as the first few people on the obstacle failed and tumbled into the black water.
They came out cursing and crying.
“It’s a nano-bath,” Eve explained as she shoved someone back who tried to cut in line. “They use it to clean weapons. You just stick a rifle in it and it cleans it up in a few seconds.”
“What’s with them then?” Coop watched as the first few recruits returned to the line.
You couldn’t advance to the next obstacle before completing the previous ones.
“The baths are meant to clean out the residue from electro-magnetic rifles.” Eve said it like it was the most obvious thing in the galaxy. “That shit really gets caked in there, so the baths are pretty strong.”
A female recruit walked by, crying and trying to scratch her whole body at once.
“It’s irritating as a motherfucker.” Eve grinned, hopping up onto the first pad easily.
She didn’t take the pads one foot at a time like the SSG had. Instead, she leapt from pad to pad, landing on both feet, and used her hands to grab the edges. It was a solid strategy, until she had to leap to a pad where another squad’s recruit was holding everything up.
Coop was on the pads now, imitating her. Instead of waiting for the other squad’s member to get moving, Eve jumped. She aimed for the section of the pad not occupied by the guy, which wasn’t much. She was able to get a foot down and a hand on the edge.
“What the…!” The guy yelped as Eve put her free foot into his lower back.
“Shit or get off the can!”
Coop laughed as the guy pitched face first into the black nano-bath.
“Let’s move second squad!” Eve leapt nimbly from pad to pad.
<God it’s good to have you back…and the view.> Coop almost missed his grip once; more interested in looking at her ass than where he should be jumping.
The entire second squad made it through the first obstacle together and then set off at a run for the second. A three meter wall stood two hundred meters away.
“First person in the group brace at the bottom of the wall. Second person use the first person’s height to get up and secure yourself on top,” Eve didn’t bother to wait for Coop to explain.
Coop braced himself against the wall, legs bent and hands interlocked to make a foothold.
“You first, Emma.” Coop saw the wide-eyed look on the big girl’s face, and knew she’d be the weak link in the chain.
Emma hesitated and Eve ripped her a new one. “Get your ass up that wall, Recruit!”
<Why the hell did that turn me on?> Coop shook his head and focused, ignoring the half-chub he’d gotten.
Eve’s shout did the trick. Like a startled deer, Emma ran forward, put her foot in Coop’s hands, and pushed down while he hauled up.
<Fuck!> Coop’s back screamed in protest as Emma jumped to the top of the wall. She was heavier than she looked, at least a hundred and twenty kilos.
“Up and over Emma,” Eve ordered, going next.
Coop braced himself harder, but it wasn’t necessary. Eve weighed a normal amount for someone her size.
With the rest of his group up and over the wall that left Coop in a pickle. He couldn’t jump up and reach the top of the wall, but they’d planned for this, and Eve was calling out orders.
“Person on the wall, reach down and grab the person below you.” Eve reached over and grabbed Coop’s outstretched hand when he jumped up.
Eve was stronger than she looked, and she easily got Coop’s hand up to the edge. He did a pull-up, put his chest on the top of the wall, threw his foot over, shimmied up and over, then lowered himself down on the other side until finally dropping the last meter to the ground.
The whole process took less than thirty seconds, and the whole squad got it done on the first or second try.
“Let’s go people, we don’t have all day!” Eve yelled sprinting the hundred meters to their next obstacle.
They navigated half the course like this. Even though they were running as battle buddies and one group of three, they were never too far apart. The farthest Mike and Harper fell behind was a single obstacle. Coop’s planning had been decent, but Eve took one look at the obstacle and knew how to tackle them. Like always she knew exactly what to do, and how to motivate her group to do it.
Emma needed that motivation, especially when they got to the laser grids.
“We’ve got to low crawl if we don’t want to get our asses barbequed.” Eve assessed the situation and dropped flat on the ground. “Get low, put one side of your face in the dirt, move alternate knees and elbows forward to pull and push yourself. Don’t rush it.” She looked at the fifty meter long obstacle. “If you get impatient and try to move fast you’re gonna get your ass sliced up.”
<We can’t have that. No one gets to punish that ass but me.>
The three of them got down low, and started to move forward just as Eve explained. It was slow going, but the screams of people doing it wrong reinforced Eve’s correct method. Coop’s face was raw from scraping against the ground, but other than that he was good…until something whipped past his head.
The SNAP of the hypersonic round whizzing past Coop’s head nearly made him shit himself.
Instinctually he knew he was getting shot at, but that didn’t stop him from asking. “What the hell was that?”
“Keep your head down!” Eve yelled back, not bothering to explain.
“Listen to your squad leader.” SSG Cunningham’s voice sounded like god calling down from the mountaintop. “I can put a round up a fly’s ass at two hundred meters, but if one of you picks your head up above that grid you’re taking your life in your own hands.”
More rounds whizzed by, causing Coop to push his face further into the ground.
<Bitch is crazy!>
Just when he thought things were bad they got worse. The snaps and hisses of the fired round abruptly ceased, only to be followed a moment later by loud, repetitive booms.
Coop jumped at the loud noises and singed his ass on the grid.
“For fuck’s sake, Cooper, stay down.” Eve was a few meters ahead now. She’d never stopped crawling.
In between them was Emma, and she had stopped. She was curled up in a fetal position with her hands over her ears. She was screaming and crying nearly as loudly as the BOOM of whatever weapon the instructors were firing over their heads.
“Eve, we’ve got a problem!”
Eve stopped and looked around. “She’s freaking out.” She reversed her motion and slowly crawled the few meters back to Emma. “We need to snap her out of it.”
“Emma! Emma!” Coop crawled up to the girl and poked her in the hamstring. “You need to move!”
He might as well be poking a duro-steel wall for all the good it did.
“Fuck!” The booms stopped and more hisses passed overhead, but each close shot brought with it a singe of heat, like Coop was pressing his ass against the laser grid all over again.
“Emma, move your ass!” Coop gave up any pretense of playing nice.
He punched her hard in the hamstring.
He knew from experience that hurt like hell, and it succeeded in pushing Emma out of her freak out mode. Unfortunately, as all animals do when they’re in a corner, she lashed out. Coop took a boot to the face.
“Motherfucker!” Coop heard and felt his nose break. “Stupid bitch!”
“Quit your whining, Coop.” Eve was half coaxing, half pulling Emma forward now.
“She broke my fucking nose.” He felt justified in his complaining.
“Rub some dirt on it, Recruit.”
Coop couldn’t see, but he knew Eve had a big smile on her face.
“We’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t want to carry you if you pass out from blood loss. Fix yourself and move.”
“Fine.” Coop didn’t have anything else to do, so he followed her orders.