Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: Space between Mars and Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Mary mother of fuck that’s good.” Several heads around the chow hall turned as Coop took a big gulp of the beer and sighed.
There were some traditions in the Commonwealth Navy that were holdovers from the old nations that had originally comprised it. One of those traditions was the rum ration. They’d tried to get rid of it in the twentieth century, and that didn’t work out well, so they’d brought it back to life when the Commonwealth was created. There had been some minor adjustments though. First, they didn’t serve rum anymore because there was a real safety concern. So, the new rum ration ended up as a single beer a day that could be consumed when the soldier or spacer was off duty and only in the chow hall.
After a day of fighting Rats in the streets of Old Chicago, the brigade, battalion, and ship’s CO thought it was a good idea to let the troops have a beer and blow off some steam.
<It’s real beer!> That alone was more than Coop was accustomed to.
Back in the PHA they had booze, but it was cheap ass shit either distilled in the secret bowels of the PHA towers, or putrid soy crap allotted as part of the BSA ration. It would get you drunk but it would rot your gut in the process. There was more than one welfare Rat out there who didn’t see fifty from drinking all that shit.
“Ahhhhh.” Coop reclined in his chair and looked around.
The chow hall was packed full of soldiers. Some were upbeat and shooting the shit with each other, while others looked like they’d just bit into a lemon. A few of the latter ones were shooting Coop glares, but he didn’t care. They’d just come through their first combat action and lived. If there was anything to celebrate it was that.
“To alpha team.” Coop raised his already half gone beer. “We got to go down into those sewers and kind of blow shit up, and we all made it out with nothing more than some nicked scales. Next weekend we graduate and then I probably won’t see your ugly mugs again.”
Melissa and Whitehead laughed as they clinked their beers to Coops. The woman muttered something under her breath, probably something to do with counting down the minutes until she got away from Coop, but no one caught it. The only one who didn’t cheer was Mike. He just sat there with a scrunched-up face.
“What burrowed into your asshole?” Coop asked as he downed another quarter of his beer in a single gulp.
Mike gave him a quick glare, eyed everyone around them, and raised his glass. “To absent friends.”
<Shit.> Coop felt like a real asshole as the smirk was wiped from his face and he raised his own glass. This round of clinks was much more subdued.
As far as casualties went the 1894th hadn’t taken any. They might have been facing off against a few hundred thousand angry Rats, but they were still wearing heavy battle armor designed to shrug off small arms fire and keep on charging. The regular grunts throughout the rest of the brigade hadn’t been so lucky. Coop knew about the one time the Rats had nearly broken through the defensive line, and then there was that building that had come down, so there were casualties. Coop didn’t have any numbers or any idea who they were, but the glares they’d been getting around the room said that maybe a few of those fallen soldiers’ friends were in the room with them.
<That killed the mood.> Coop finished off his beer and got to his feet just as his PAD chirped.
He pulled it out of his CMU’s thigh pocket and checked the message. The MSG wanted to see him for his after action review. Coop knew it was coming, and as far as he’d heard he was going to be the first person in the company to get one.
<Oh joy.> He gave a nod to his teammates, tossed his beer bottled in the recycler, and headed back toward the massive hangar that comprised the majority of the turtle-shaped transport ships.
Just like on the ride over, the MSG had made them strip out of their armor for the three hour ride back. They’d all downloaded their suit data to the NCOIC and he was reviewing it before the individual AARs. So it was no surprise when Coop walked into Venom Two-One’s empty troop bay and saw the MSG still in his armor.
“Take a seat, Cooper.” The MSG’s armored form was standing totally still, but Coop knew there was a lot going on inside the duro-steel shell.
“You should really grab a beer, Master Sergeant.” Coop tried to break the ice with a grin. “Everyone else is.”
The suggestion got no reply aside from the armored gauntlet pointing impatiently at the padded chairs, so Coop took a seat and waited.
“Hopefully you know this already, Cooper, but an after action review is a recap of a mission where we analyze what happened and offer sustains and improves. First off, I want to congratulate you on a job well done leading alpha team.”
The congratulations took Coop off guard. “Thanks, Master Sergeant, I was just doing my job.”
“You did more than that,” the NCO continued. “You thought outside the box. You literally thought about what was underneath the box. You relayed that information up the chain of command and with that information brigade was able to circle the wagons before the Rats came out of the ground and took us by surprise everywhere.”
If Coop didn’t know better he could have sworn the MSG sounded proud.
“Your team also did a good job of scouting that tunnel and slowing down one of the Rats’ avenues of approach. I watched the footage and what you had your team do with the anti-personnel shells was smart. Artillery isn’t that useful underground, but mines are.”
“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” Coop smiled as his ego doubled in size.
“Because of these two actions I’m putting your team in for Commonwealth Achievement Medals.”
“CAMs!” Coop couldn’t hide his surprise.
It wasn’t a commendation medal, meritorious service medal, or any of the bigger awards that he’d learned about in Basic, but it was something to put on his uniform that didn’t make him look like every other shitbag Private in the service.
“You earned it, Cooper. You and your team did good work.”
“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” Coop got to his feet still feeling pretty good about life.
“Where do you think you’re going?” The MSG’s armored head swiveled toward him before his ass was more than a few centimeters off the cushion. “That was just the sustains, with an example of you and your team going beyond what was asked of you. We haven’t even gotten to the improves yet.”
<Why does that make me nervous?> Coop couldn’t see the NCO’s face, but something had changed.
“We need to talk about this.” Holographic imagery appeared between Coop and the MSG.
It detailed, in slow motion, the point in the battle where Coop had just climbed up out of the sewer. The team was providing cover fire while he was trying to stick the lid back on the manhole. A Rat unloaded his old-fashioned pistol into Coop, Coop smacked him aside with the manhole cover, and then smashed it back into place so Mike could jerry-rig a welding job to keep the hundreds of Rats below ground bottled up.
Coop watched it all play from beginning to end twice and didn’t see an issue.
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Master Sergeant. My team and I did a great job of securing the threat.”
“Yes and no.” The MSG put his large metal hands on his hips. “What were our orders concerning the civilians.”
“We weren’t supposed to use lethal rounds. Any missile use had to go through the battalion CO.” Coop paraphrased the standing orders from memory.
“That’s the letter of the order. What was the intent?”
<You’ve got to be shitting me!> Coop caught on a moment later.
“Am I being thrown under the bus for braining the one guy!?”
“Cooper, you used his head as a fucking piñata.” The MSG countered, much more intimidating in his LACS. “And then you left all the inside goodies splattered against an alley wall.”
“Come on, Master Sergeant. The dude literally emptied his whole clip into my dick.” Coop made circular motions around his crotch to emphasize the point. “There is no way that wasn’t justified.”
“Cooper, what were you wearing when that happened?”
“What were you wearing?” The NCO repeated.
“I was wearing my LACS,” Coop replied.
“Was that peashooter the guy was unloading on you with going to do anything to penetrate your LACS?”
Coop paused for a moment, “No, Master Sergeant.”
“You used excessive force outside the commander’s intent for this mission, Cooper. This wasn’t the only time you overreacted when confronted with a situation.”
“Master Sergeant?” Now Coop didn’t know what he was talking about.
The MSG fast-forwarded the holo until they got to the point in the fight when the Rats starting lobbing flaming bottles at the HI troopers. “Here.” He stabbed a metal finger as Coop’s reaction when fire from the exploding bottle blanketed him. “You freaked the fuck out and fell back from the line, and even worse, you almost got overrun while you were busy rolling around on the ground.”
<Oh shit.> Coop knew the MSG was right, he just didn’t like admitting it.
“Your big improve for this mission, Cooper, is to understand the difference between taking an attack in your skin versus in a LACS. You don’t need to be worried about fire, or even more small arms. The suit will protect you, that’s what it is there for.”
Coop didn’t know how they’d gone from talking about his good thinking and courage to him being a scared little bitch, but they’d done it.
“The battalion CO is probably going to formally reprimand you for this.” The MSG continued.
“What?!” Coop couldn’t believe it.
“He could give you extra duty or dock your pay, but it’ll probably just be a counseling and a written reprimand in your file. Lieutenant Commander Tully knew he was taking FNGs into the field, and he’ll take that into consideration.” The MSG turned off the holo. “Any questions?”
<Can I have another beer?> Was what Coop really wanted to ask.
“No, Master Sergeant.”
“Good. Go grab the rest of your team and have them line up by the Spyder to see me. I’ve got a lot of these counselings to do, and I want to be done with them by the time we hit Mars orbit. I’ve got enough paperwork to do in your last week without this.”
“Yes, Master Sergeant.” Coop got up, walked down the ramp, and went to execute his orders.
<I wonder what everyone else is doing?> He thought of Eve and the other members of his Basic class. <Probably not getting chewed out for doing their fucking jobs. I’m a soldier, I don’t use my words to solve problems.> He still couldn’t believe he was getting busted excessive force when his entire job description was the use of excessive force. <I’m HI. If the Rats had their feelings hurt they shouldn’t have rioted in the first place.> That’s how he felt, and a written reprimand wasn’t going to change that.
Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Ranger candidates!” SGM Queen barked as he stalked back and forth across the ramp of the Spyder.
The ramp was open, and the assault shuttle was buzzing above the ground at a leisurely fifty kilometers per hour. That was nothing for a craft that could easily go supersonic, but it still made the ground race by only ten meters below them.
“Up until now you forty have met the standard. You haven’t exceeded it, you’ve just met it. You all have shown basic competence with the V3 Leonidas Armored Combat Suit, and are moderately proficient in squad level tactics. But that doesn’t make you special. In fact that just makes you like every other grunt or HI trooper in the infantry. You’ve just worked with fancier gear. It’s what comes next that what will make you Rangers.”
“What do you think, Ice?” SGT Diggle elbowed Eve in the ribs. “What fresh torture do they have in store for us today?”
No one in her ranger class, which had already lost a third of its candidates, called her Eve or Berg anymore. Not everyone in the class had a nickname, but she did. The full version was “that ice cold bitch”, but those closer to her called her “Ice”.
The name came out of necessity. There were a lot of roosters and only a few hens in the forty-person Ranger class, and after months you could cut the sexual tension with a spork. In her mind, Eve only had one option. She didn’t want to get worn down and fuck someone like a few other candidates who were no longer in the class. This wasn’t Basic and they didn’t put up with that shit.
Eve just turned it off. She shut down that side of her that missed Coop, missed what they’d done that weekend outside Stewart-Benning, and instead became an ice cold bitch that had punched out more than one wannabe who came on to her. So far, it was working out pretty well.
“Welcome to SERE phase, candidates.” The way the SGM said it made everyone shiver. Even the woman named Ice. “Survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. That is what you are going to be doing this phase. Squad leaders, distribute the parcels.”
SGT Diggle was Eve’s squad leader, and she could have done worse. Unlike most of the guys who thought she was an ice queen, Diggle actually liked her. She was that annoying, hard-ass younger sister he’d always wanted. As such, he handed her the first parcel. Despite wanting to open it Eve didn’t. She’d learned to be cautious. Some stupid dipshit had opened stuff before they were authorized to before, and had that shit explode in their face. That as all the motivation she needed to quell the curiosity. There was no bigger motivator to not do something than to see some poor bastard with his thumbs blown off.
“Open it.” The SGM instructed after everyone had one.
Eve did what she was told and found a bare minimum of supplies.
<Now the last week makes sense.>
After weeks in the field doing combat training, the ranger candidates had spent a solid week doing nothing but wilderness survival, woodcraft, sheltercraft, learning traps and snares, food and water procurement, water purification techniques, improvising equipment, first aid, and camouflage techniques. Now, it seemed they were going to put it all to good use.
“This is all you’ve got.” The SGM pointed down at the bare minimum of equipment, the biggest of which was a five centimeter duro-steel knife. “So make it count. ON YOUR FEET!”
Everyone jumped to their feet and automatically lined up by squads.
“STEP FORWARD!” The SGM motioned all the squad leaders to step up to where the open ramp started to angle downward.
“Your mission is to survive for the next week. I don’t care how you do it, but you must survive to pass this phase. Don’t look so smug,” The old NCO’s eyes scanned the group, “because mother nature isn’t the only SOB waiting for you down there.”
With his piece said, the SGM grabbed the first squad leader by the collar of his dirty CMUs and tossed him out the back of the moving Spyder.
Eve’s mouth opened in shock. <Did he just kill Anderson?>
Half a second later they saw water underneath the Spyder and Anderson splash down a dozen meters from shore.
“GO…GO…GO!” The SGM yelled, and the thirty-nine remaining candidates leapt out of the Spyder and into the lukewarm water.
A kilometer away, a group of instructors crouched on the other side of the small lake. Their faces were obscured by mud, and their CMUs were camouflaged by the native foliage. Once they saw the last candidate hit the water they started to move out.
“Let’s go bag us some fresh meat.”