Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“What the hell is that stuff?” Coop asked the medic as he struggled to his feet.
The bored looking guy had already asked for everyone to head over to the main collection of medics, but Coop was still getting his bearings.
“Smelling salts.” The medic waved the chemical stick in Coop’s direction, and Coop flinched back when a waft of the stuff hit his nostrils. “This stuff has been waking up dumbasses like you for hundreds of years. Now get over to the tables and get checked out, Recruit.”
Coop turned hoping the see Eve, but his squad leader was already gone. <Of course she is.> He grumbled and headed over to the medic table.
His checkup was quick. They made sure that everything in his neck was working correctly, scanned to make sure Eve hadn’t broken anything with her thighs of steel, and did some simple coordination tests to double check he hadn’t lost too many brain cells. Once the medics confirmed that he was good to go he had to go sit against a wall for the rest of the tournament.
If anything, that was the hardest part of the whole competition.
Coop’s father, Walter, had always said the world was made up of two people; doers and thinkers. The older Cooper didn’t diminish the value of either group in society; hell, he admired both. Walter had told Coop that the most successful people were both doers and thinkers depending on what the situation called for.
Most of the shit Walter said Coop didn’t pay attention to, because he had a different outlook on life at the time. In the PHA Coop also believed there were two types of people; those who sat on their ass and those who went and got some ass. It would take Coop several years, and being choked out by his super-hot squad leader, to learn that him and his father had been saying the same thing all along.
Coop was a doer, someone who was trying to get some ass, and not much of a thinker. Having to sit on his ass and watch the rest of the fighting tournament was hell on him. So, taking his father’s words to heart for the first time in years, Coop did a little thinking.
<Staff Sergeant Cunningham was right.> Coop watched as the fighters who made it into the later rounds stepped into the combat squares and started to dance. <I don’t know how to fight.> The thought pissed Coop off.
Those who made it into the later rounds of competition weren’t fighting any way Coop had ever seen. It was more of a dance than the fisticuff brawls that Coop had seen and participated in during his eighteen years in the PHA. Half the fighting happened on the ground with people trying to grab limbs and twist them at odd angles. From where Coop sat he could hear the screams of pain when someone won.
<I want to fight like that.> Coop knew exactly how he was going to spend the next week of his life.
Of all the people fighting, Coop paid special attention to Eve; not just because of her tight smartcloth CMUs clinging in all the right places, but because she was the one who beat him. Coop had learned long ago that studying the people who kicked your ass was always a good idea. The next time Eve had her legs wrapped around his head they wouldn’t be fighting.
“Everyone gather around!” The SSG barked as the eighty-one recruits in Echo Company were whittled down to two. “I want you to take a good look at these two people.” The SSG pointed at Eve and the squad leader from first squad. “These two have shown me that they aren’t completely worthless. They won’t get themselves killed on their first day. The rest of you have a week to convince me or you’re out. Administrative cuts will make sure that those who can’t tough it out through a fight don’t make it into our next phase. Understood?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” In the yelling there was an undercurrent of fear.
No one wanted to get their asses kicked for a week just to get booted from Basic.
“The winner’s squad will get a special treat. So don’t let your people down.”
Coop had met first squad’s leader in passing. His name was Bart and he was older than anyone else in the entire company. He was also a few centimeters taller than Coop, with broader shoulders, and hands the size of Harper’s face. Bart could palm someone’s head like a basketball if he wanted, so he was the last person in the world Coop wanted Eve to be facing. It didn’t matter that Bart’s squad loved him, and that he was kind and courteous to everyone he met. None of that meant shit in a fight.
Eve and Bart gave each other a small bow before beginning, and then they went at it. It was by far the best fight Coop had ever seen. Eve was faster but Bart was stronger. Eve darted in like a viper, striking with fists and feet and then dodging Bart’s counters. By the end of the first minute both of the fighters were sweating profusely, Bart was limping slightly from a blow to the side of the leg Eve had landed, and Eve was a little unsteady from a blow to the head she’d only partially blocked. The second minute saw Bart’s strength begin to win out over Eve’s speed. She took a few more jarring hits, while only scoring a single blow on Bart. His counters and follow-ups were becoming more effective. The final third minute had Eve on the defensive and almost getting knocked out until the last ten seconds, where she threw a lightning fast combo that scored multiple hits.
“Time!” The SSG announced, and the two fighters immediately disengaged.
Bart sat down, grimacing at the pain in his leg. Medics rushed over to him, just like they rushed over to Eve. She was swaying dangerously on her feet, her face was starting to bruise, her lip was split, and she was cradling her arm protectively to her side.
While the SSG and PO3 gathered with the corporal trainers to decide the winner, Coop and the rest of second squad headed over the congratulate their leader.
“You kicked ass!” Harper cheered once they were all gathered around Eve.
“That was impressive,” Mike grinned. The large former Rat had made it one round farther than Coop, which was the farthest of anyone except Eve.
“Remind me to never get on your bad side.” Coop gave Eve a nod.
He wanted the nod to convey, “I’m not pissed at you for choking me out” while still being light-hearted and funny.
<Wait is she…> For a second Coop thought Eve was blushing.
“Eyes on me, Recruits!” Whatever Coop thought he’d seen vanished as everyone’s eyes immediately zeroed in on SSG Cunningham’s voice. “After due consideration the winner of our tournament is Recruit Bart Aaron. Congratulations, Recruit.” The SSG tossed two meter-long black sticks at the first squad leader.
“Thank you, Staff Sergeant.” Bart’s voice was surprisingly pleasant for someone his size who’d just won a fighting competition.
“Don’t thank me you earned it.” The SSG turned and started walking toward the doors. “I’m leaving you all in the capable hands of these instructors. I’ll be back at eighteen-hundred. Don’t disappoint me.” The door slid closed behind her, leaving Echo Company with the now much meaner looking corporals.
“Everyone pair up, NOW! Three…two…one…”
Coop looked to Eve. They always paired up together, but the squad leader had already grabbed Harper by the hand. Which left Coop with Mike. The two former Rats got next to each other just before the corporal hit zero, and everyone had to do pushups.
“Just like old times huh,” Mike chuckled as they knocked out the pushups.
The two hours between when SSG Cunningham left and returned were a lot like old times. A few of the corporals reminded Coop of that vindictive, half-crazy staff sergeant from the civil administration building. The same staff sergeant who’d booted Coop off the air-bus. Still, Coop did exactly what they said.
The first task of which was to do nothing and get punched in the face by your partner.
“Good.” The hulking monstrosity who was the lead corporal announced once everyone had punched everyone else in the face. “Now you all know what it feels like. We can build from that.”
Two hours of learning how to punch and dodge “correctly” wasn’t exactly Coop’s most enjoyable time at basic. The corporal’s constant yelling that they were building “muscle memory” didn’t make it any more exciting. So when the corporals left and the SSG and PO3 returned, Coop was ready to get some chow, hit the head, and get a few hours of shut-eye. In that order.
“So, is fight week just getting yelled at by the corporals and throwing punches?” Thankfully, Olivia was the one to ask the question not Coop.
“You don’t know?” Harper was cuddled up next to Mike. Being with the second-best fighter in the squad was definitely revving her engine. “What about your mystery boyfriend in the class ahead of us?”
“I haven’t heard anything from him.” Olivia didn’t look happy about that. “He’s always been able to shoot me a message through MILNET every few days, but the last week I haven’t gotten anything.”
“I’m sure everything is fine.” Harper went right into optimistic girlfriend mode.
“They do restrict communications during certain phases of training,” Eve added.
The squad leader had been uncharacteristically quiet. Coop assumed she was still analyzing her loss to Bart. Unlike him, Eve was a doer and a thinker depending on the situation, and right now she was thinking. Despite sitting right next to him Eve hadn’t even made eye contact.
“That would explain it.” The information seemed to put Olivia at ease.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it.” Harper jumped on the positivity bandwagon.
The rest of chow passed quickly without Eve even saying a word to Coop.
<Ok, there’s thinking and then there’s just ignoring me.>
“Hey.” Coop grabbed Eve by the elbow as they headed over to toss their trays into the auto-cleaner. “You want to tell me what’s going on?” Coop ignored the shock of touching her, and there was a definite electric shock involved with the contact, not some lovey-dovey romantic shock.
“What?” Eve still didn’t look at him as she pulled her arm free and dumped her tray into the machine.
“You’re not a good liar.” Coop dumped his own tray and followed her.
“I don’t have time for this,” Eve grumbled, trying to weave her way through the crowd and get away from Coop.
Unfortunately, Coop was thin enough to follow, and his legs were long enough to keep pace and overtake her. “Time for what? Time for the squad leader to tell her team leader what she shoved up her ass sometime today?”
Coop snapped his mouth shut, before he said anything else that would get him in trouble; or maybe get his ass kicked again.
Eve’s glare showed Coop he’d definitely stuck his foot in his mouth. “I don’t have time to talk about this.” Eve gestured to him and her. “Not right now. We’re about to be neck deep in shit and we sure as hell aren’t ready for it.”
“What?” Coop didn’t make it clear if he was talking about what Eve eluded to between them or the shit they were about to walk into. He definitely meant the former, but she answered to the latter.
“Fight week isn’t just about learning how to fight.” She was whispering now. “It’s also about fighting; pure, unadulterated battle. After what I saw today from our squad we’re not going to do well.”
“Well with what?” Coop didn’t know what Eve was talking about, and he desperately wanted to go back and talk about the two of them.
“You’ll see.” Was Eve’s only answer as they rounded the corner and found the rest of Echo Company and SSG Cunningham waiting.
“Two lines! Follow me!” The SSG started walking without waiting to see what happened.
The eighty-one recruits of Echo Company executed the SSG’s order, formed into two lines and followed their instructor through the corridors until they reached a large open room. There she stopped and turned to face them.
“Fall in!” The company quickly dispersed and reformed into the ten uneven squads. “At ease.” Everyone relaxed as the SSG put her hands behind her back.
“For the rest of this training iteration you will be following this schedule: Chow is at 0600, 1200, and 1800. Combative classes from 0630 to 1200 and 1230 to 1800. You will conduct personal hygiene before your first chow and after your last chow. You have thirty minutes for personal hygiene. Execute that now.”
Personal hygiene was all about the three S’s: shit, shower, and shave. Coop went straight for the shitter, because there was nothing like a good shit after a day of fighting. He sacrificed his time to see Eve naked, but with things up in the air and weird between them it was probably for the best. Thirty minutes later the entire company was formed up again where they started with an intense SSG looking over them.
“The last part of your schedule for fight week, Recruits, is the maze. You will execute the maze from 1830 to 0530.”
“1830 to 0530! When are we supposed to sleep Staff Sergeant?”
<Fucking Davenport!> Coop knew the entire company was mentally screaming the same thing.
“Not my problem, Recruit Davenport.” The look the SSG gave the squad jackass could have stripped paint from a bulkhead. That’s for all of you to figure out.” She looked down at her wrist. “You’re already two minutes late, and that puts you at enough of a disadvantage.” The NCOIC returned her gaze to the company. “Same rules apply in the maze as in the combat square. Don’t fuck around because we’ll be watching.”
SSG Cunningham called the company to attention and walked to the side of the formation, pointed to a door large enough to fit five people through abreast and said, “Go.”
“Second Squad on me!” Eve yelled over the sound of pounding feet running toward the door.
No one knew what was on the other side of it, but the SSG said to get through it, and that’s what everyone was going to do. Second squad was just doing it smarter than everyone else; except maybe first squad, which seemed to have a similar plan.
“Everyone stay together and watch each other’s backs. We’re going in finding a place to lay low and then we’ll sleep in shifts. Half on half off for two hour shifts.”
“Eve,” Coop didn’t want to step on her little briefing, but he did. “I think I speak for all of us when I ask, what the hell is going on?” Several heads in the squad nodded their agreement.
Eve gave Coop a hard look, but then it softened. “The tournament was the initial assessment. The time with the corporals is the training, and the maze is the practical exercise.” Second squad was walking through the door now, and they were the last ones through.
The door closed with an audible clang behind them, descending the whole space into twilight. But unlike the outside world, this space wasn’t filled with the annoying sounds of nature. It was filled with far off screams, grunts, and the sounds of flesh hitting flesh.
And not in a good way.
“The maze is a free-for-all.” Eve whispered, as she took the first hallway to the right, leading second squad away from the rest of the company. “Here the instructors get to see what we learned.”
“And see who’s the best.” A cruel voice announced from the darkness ahead of second squad.
Into Eve’s path stepped eight people in CMUs. Eight other recruits that none of second squad recognized. Eight other recruits that were spoiling for a fight.
The recruit at the front, the one with the cruel voice, wasn’t big or broad. He was actually on the small and skinny side, but Coop knew better than to judge a book by its cover. He’d seen plenty of small, ordinary looking books stomp the shit out of people.
“Look what we got here, fresh meat.” Another recruit actually cackled, and Coop couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Something funny?”
Coop thought the guy would have been angrier, but if he was it was a cold anger. Whoever this guy was he wasn’t bullheaded like Davenport.
“Nothing’s funny.” Eve replied. “Are we just going to sit here and talk or are we going to fight?”
<I think I’m in love.> Coop didn’t have time to delve into how hot Eve was at the moment because the eight unknown recruits charged second squad.
<Here goes nothing.> Coop readied himself for another brawl.
He couldn’t stop smiling.