Two Worlds – Chapter 41

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

As it turned out a fart sack was a lovely term for the Self-Contained Survival Habitat or SCSH, and unlike the rest of second squad Coop only had fifteen minutes to get ready. While it was great to gawk at Eve’s nakedness for a few minutes, their little chat had put them way behind schedule. Thirty minutes to shit, shower, shave and pack up for a week in the field was not enough time.

“Cram it in there tight.” Eve was walking people through how to pack a large pack called a rucksack.

<That’s what she said.> Coop wanted to say it out loud so bad, but he was already on thin ice with Eve from the whole Emma incident. Making a mildly sexist comment wasn’t going to get him anywhere closer to screwing her.

“Don’t just let that shit rattle around. Strap it down in place like I showed you. You’ll thank me later.” Eve’s own ruck was packed and she was inspecting everyone else’s.

She got to Coop last, and after quickly making sure he hadn’t screwed things up too bad she shot him a hard look, and then moved her eyes back and forth between him and Emma. The squad member with heavy gravity genes was on the other side of the circle the squad had created around Eve’s example rucksack, and was purposefully avoiding anyone’s gaze.

Eve’s meaning was clear.

“Everyone ruck-up and head out to formation.” They had a couple minutes left, but if you were on time then you were late in SSG Cunningham and PO3 Janney’s book.

“Emma, can I have a second?” Coop knew it sounded awkward, and Emma flinched like he’d physically struck her.

“Let’s go people!” Eve motivated the squad to move faster, but waved Emma over toward Coop when she tried to escape.

Emma came over to Coop, her shoulders stooped and her eyes downcast. “Yeah.”

<I don’t get it?> They stood there uneasily for a moment. <She’s big, strong, decent looking; I don’t get why she’s so shy.> You didn’t find people like Emma in the PHA. Women with half her ability found their niche in the Rat hierarchy, and they lived much better lives than Coop had.

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” Coop didn’t see any reason to dance around the issue. “I was being an ass. That nano-bath shit itched like a fucking STD and I took it out on you. I also didn’t know anything about where you came from…so yeah, sorry for being a dick.” He trailed off uncomfortably.

Coop wasn’t used to having to explain himself or apologize for anything. Being wrong was a sign of weakness, and weakness wasn’t something you could show in the PHA.

“That’s ok. I get it. I’m different.” Emma sniffled, and Coop felt even more uncomfortable.

“Yeah…well…you did good on the Grinder, so keep it up.”

Compared to Eve, Coop was a horrible motivator, but his awkward words seemed to partially repair things with Emma.

They might have made more headway, but that was all the time they had to talk.

“Seven…six…five…” the PO3’s loud yells from outside spoke of imminent physical torture if they didn’t get their asses in gear.

If they hadn’t been wearing their rucksacks they would have made it, but the extra thirty kilos of shit on their backs slowed them down. Coop and Emma weren’t the only ones late, so the entire company had to do pushups.

It was only ten, but it was ten with the rucksack still on. Coop would rather do fifty without that god-forsaken ruck on his back.

“Let’s go, Recruits!” The SSG barely waited for them to get back to their feet. She just turned and started to walk away.

After a week of being told which direction to face, when to march, when to run, and when to stop; a lot of Recruits just stood there flat-footed for a moment too long.

“Fall out! Are y’all waitin’ for a written invitation?” PO3 Janney pounced on them, and sent the eighty-three members of Echo Company scrambling after the SSG.

This was the company’s first experience with the ruck march, a time-honored military tradition dating all the way back to the dawn of warfare. Soldiers needed to get from point A to point B, and the most surefire way to get that done was with their own two feet. Some of Earth’s old empires used to march soldiers thirty or forty kilometers a day to reach far flung battlefields. In some instances they ended a march and went straight into battle. It was a skill that was instilled in every modern soldier even if they were going to be shepherded into battle in the bellies of Spyder Assault Shuttles.

It was also one hell of a workout.

By the end of the first two kilometers Coop’s back was throbbing painfully with every step he took. Instead of marching in a formation the entire company was strewn in a quarter kilometer long line with the SSG marching effortlessly at the front and the PO3 rounding up stragglers in the rear by kicking their asses into gear. Coop was near the front of the line, but he didn’t know how much longer he could keep it up. His feet were burning and he was pretty sure he was developing blisters.

“Here.” Eve appeared out of nowhere and started fiddling with his rucksack.

“Don’t…” Coop growled, but then the ruck lurched forward and the pain in his lower back lessened.

“Try and keep the ruck’s weight on your shoulders instead of your back. You’ll last longer. When your shoulders get tired adjust it back to putting pressure on your back and then alternate back and forth. Use these straps here.” Eve pointed them out before synching them down tightly.

“Thanks,” Coop grumbled, upset that he hadn’t figured it out himself. It was pretty simple.

“Don’t thank me it’s my job,” Eve’s response wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t warm either. They were in a neutral place now. “You talk to Emma?”

Coop looked ahead to where the other woman was walking easily only a few steps behind the SSG. <Having those genes probably helps when you’ve got another thirty kilos on your back.> He thought jealously.

“We talked, we’re good.” Coop shrugged.

“You’d better be. We need to be a hundred percent effective this coming week. We’ve got another challenge coming up, and probably another run through the Grinder. Can I count on you, Coop?”

“Yeah of course.” Coop nodded sharply.

“Good.” Eve’s neutrality broke and a smile crept across her lips. “Then follow me.”

“Lead the way,” Coop grumbled before struggling to match her pace.

The five kilometers seemed endless, but everyone’s pace picked up when they saw the beginning of the obstacle course in the distance. The sun was already setting behind the mountain, and twilight was upon them by the time they reached the course.

“What the shit is that?” Strange noises started to sing out from the growing darkness.

“Animals, bugs, just about anything you could think of that would be out at night,” Eve replied.

That was the thing; Coop had no idea what would be out at night. When he thought of things that crept around in the darkness he thought about the other Rat gangs that roamed the PHA. When he thought of the noises of the night he thought of police sirens, gun shots, and people humping through thin polyplast walls. All this nature stuff was foreign, alien sounding, and mildly terrifying.

“Don’t shit your pants city-boy.” Eve must have seen the look on his face. “That’s what the SCSHs are for. They won’t let anything munch on your precious little pecker.”

“Shut up,” Coop didn’t have anything better to say to that, and Eve walked away laughing.

They reached the Grinder and then the SSG took a ninety-degree right turn and walked through a small thicket of trees. Coop had never touched a tree before, and he reached out and felt a few as they passed through the small wooded area. Eve looked at him like he’d had a stroke or something, but he ignored her.

Coop vaguely remembered from his freshman year biology class that the air scrubbers that littered the Earth’s atmosphere were because most of the planet’s trees were gone and there was too much carbon dioxide built up. The scrubbers kept things from getting too bad, but Coop knew all too well what could happen if a critical scrubber failed. Death by Environmental Hazard was a frequent killer in the PHA. That’s why not having a mask at his hip was such a weird feeling for the former Rat.

The SSG led them approximately a hundred meters into the woods before it opened up into a large clearing. She stopped in the middle of the clearing and waited the ten minutes until the entire company was reassembled.

“Squad leaders set up camp and see me in ten mikes. After that we’ll have a companywide formation and a short class before we get some shut-eye. Understood?”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” Their yell echoed off the side of the mountain and reverberated through the air. The sounds of the wilderness were silent for a few seconds before resuming their chorus.

“Second squad over here.” Eve waved them all to a small depression in the ground. “We’re going to make a circle around this hole. Spread out and pair up in your battle buddy teams.” She pointed Coop to the place where they’d be sleeping.

He gave her a winning smile as he plopped down next to the spot and started to remove his SCSH from the top of his rucksack. He extended it until it looked like a big cocoon. He ran the diagnostic from memory and breathed easily when it came back with green status. He was about to engage the desired setting when Eve plopped down beside him. She had her PAD out and was checking the weather.

“It’s only going to get down to ten degrees Celsius tonight, so set it on the temperate setting.” She stated.

“I’m sweating my balls off,” Coop complained. “Why not set it on arid and get a good chill going?”

“Because if you set it to arid with all the sweat from the march you’re going to get yourself sick.” Eve shook her head at Coop’s suggestion. “We’re all doing temperate so pass it around.”

With a silent grumble Coop passed the word around. The small indentation wasn’t big, so they were all pretty close together. There was a meter of space between each person and a few more separating the feet of the SCSHs, which spread out around the indentation like nine spokes on a wheel.  There was enough room to walk around their little camp comfortably until they went to sleep.

“Everyone gather around.” Coop was pulling out his own PAD when Eve ordered everyone over to their little slice of real estate. “Here.” There was a soft chime and Coop opened up the small message she’d just sent.

“00:20-01:00?” Coop founded his name and a time next to it. “What?”

“This is the watch schedule,” Eve explained like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Watch schedule?” Several people asked in unison.

“When we are out in the field we will keep a watch schedule every night.” She continued over a few noisy complaints. “This is for everyone’s safety and situational awareness. Every person in the squad will pull a forty minute watch tonight. I’ve already received the schedule from Staff Sergeant Cunningham. We have downtime from 23:00 to 05:00. Everyone is pulling an equal shift, so no one can complain.”

“My shift is from 02:20 to 03:00.” Davenport glared at Eve. “What am I supposed to do? Get a few hours of sleep, wake up and pull my shift, and then go back to sleep for a few more hours. Why’d I get stuck with the middle shift?”

“Exactly.” Eve answered his first question.

“Because you’re an asshole.” Harper answered the second.

The squad nympho had buddied up with Mike, and Coop was sure there’d be a little rub and tug going on in one of those SCSHs tonight.

“Fuck you guys.” Davenport fumed, but nobody cared.

“The watch schedule will rotate over the week we’re out here so don’t think you’ll be pulling the same shift every night,” Eve continued. “This watch schedule is for everyone’s safety. When you’re on watch you’ll look for anything out of the ordinary and anything dangerous. If you see something wake us the fuck up, understood?”

Eve sounded just like SSG Cunningham, and that gave Coop a half-chub. <Sleeping right next to her is going to give me blue balls.> He was suddenly very envious of Mike.

Eve left a minute later to meet up with the SSG, so Coop took some time to read his PAD. Eve said this was going to be basic wilderness skills so he looked at the applications available on his PAD and tried them out.

With his PAD Coop could scan the grass and see how dry it was. He could link it to the training center’s weather database and calculate the odds of a fire.  He assumed fire was one of the things they would need to worry about when he was on watch.

<Speaking of fire.> He watched a quick video on multiple ways to start a fire, and activated an app that scanned the nearby trees and told him if they would be good to burn.

To Coop’s surprise the scan revealed specifically genetically engineered trees that were resistant to flames. Apparently, fires out here in the training center’s open spaces were a big problem in the summer time.

“Fall in!” PO3 Janney yelled, and everyone scurried to get into formation.

“At ease…relax.” SSG Cunningham stepped in front of the group and help up a PAD. “Today’s class if going to be short and sweet. Everyone take out your PAD and log into your MILNET account.”

Coop was already logged in, but he saw a bunch of other recruits pull out the slab of polyplast and scan their GICs. He quickly navigated to his personal account page and was surprised to see that it had changed.

“As you might have noticed your accounts have been updated. I want you to select the tab marked MWFAS.”

Coop did as he was instructed and a banking page popped onto the screen. It required a secondary scan of his GIC, but once he did that he couldn’t believe what he saw.

“MWFAS stands for Ministry of War Finance and Accounting Services. This is the department that handles all of your pay issues. There is a local office back on the main base that you can go to if there are any issues, but you will not have any problems while you are here because you will not be messing with your pay during your time with us.” The look on the SSG’s face dared anyone to challenge her.

When they didn’t she continued.

“Select the tab marked LES. LES stands for Leave and Earnings Statement. This is the receipt for your pay and any leave you have earned. Your basic pay amount listed is for a month’s work, but you will be paid twice a month; on the first and on the fifteenth. If the first or the fifteenth falls on a weekend you will be paid on Friday. That goes for Commonwealth Holidays too.”

Coop clicked on the LES but couldn’t find one. There was a link marked EXAMPLE.

“Click the Example and peruse the data. This is what your first LES should look like. The pay is on the top. It lists your total base pay plus any additional pay followed by deductions for taxes and any allotments you choose.” Coop looked over the section.

The example LES showed an E-1 salary minus standard taxes with no additional allotments. Coop couldn’t believe his eyes, so he raised his hand. “Staff Sergeant, are these numbers accurate?”

“Yes, Recruit Cooper. The base pay of an E-1 Recruit is fifty thousand dollars a year. Divide fifty thousand by twenty four individual payments then you have a grand total of $2083.33 a payment before taxes. After tax your income amounts to $1020.83 a payment. So you take home pay for a month is $2041.66. Currently, you have all received one payment since the start of your basic training, so if you go back to you WDFAS main menu you can select your individual account and see that you have all earned $1020.83 for not dying on me yet.”

Coop didn’t care if the SSG was joking or not. He swiped back to the previous screen and saw the six green digits shinning back at him. <Holy shit I have money.> It was the best feeling in the world.

“Leave is documented on the bottom half of the LES. Everyone from E-1 to E-4 earns one day of leave per month. NCOs, Officers, and Specialists earn more but you don’t need to worry about that. Your LES will show you how much you have and how much you’ve used.”

Coop barely paid attention to the SSG’s speech on leave. He was still too focused on the numbers on his PAD.

<Fifty thousand a year…I’ve already got over a grand…and I’ll have over six grand by the time I’m done with basic.> Coop did some mental math and tried not to drool. The only time Coop had ever held more than a hundred bucks in his hand was when he was at the Civil Administration building handing over his welfare payment to that fat bitch in the blue smartcloth behind the counter. In all the side jobs he’d pulled over his eighteen years he hadn’t banked more than a grand…ever. Now he had that, just sitting in an account just waiting to be used.

<I’m going to get so much pussy.> His thought pretty much summed up where his mind was at the moment.

Coop had already heard about the reputable establishments in the towns surrounding the base. If he hadn’t gotten in Eve’s pants yet, which was becoming more and more uncertain, he was going to find himself the prettiest whore in the area and fuck her all night long.

“Fall out!” The PO3’s yell snapped Coop out of his daydream.

“Let’s go second squad.” Eve’s voice directed them back to their little hole.

The rest of the squads were spread throughout the large open clearing, and within the individual squads they were much more dispersed than second squad. Coop would have brought this up with Eve, but he knew that she knew something they didn’t.

She always did.

“It’s 1100. I’ve got the first watch, followed by Emma and then Coop.” Emma was the third member of their battle buddy team since they had an uneven number of people in the squad. “If you’re on watch you can sit in the middle of the group, but I’d like you to get up and walk the perimeter every five to ten minutes. Try to vary it up though, don’t fall into a pattern.”

“Pattern?” Davenport scoffed. “Why the hell does that matter?”

“It just does,” Eve shot back before ushering everyone into their SCSHs. “If you don’t wake up for your shift I’m going to cut off the air intake for your SCSHs.” Most of the squad disappeared into the aforementioned SCSHs knowing their squad leader would follow through with that threat.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about tonight.” The last part was mumbled under her breath, but Coop heard it.

<Thanks for that,> he thought as he slipped into his SCSH and sealed it behind him. <Not going to get any sleep now.>

It didn’t help that being sealed in the SCSH felt like being trapped in a coffin.

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