Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: Joint Base Mattis, Mars, United Commonwealth of Colonies
Coop knew it was coming. It was a matter of “when” not “if”. Their last week couldn’t consist solely of hand-to-hand combat focusing on the blades in their LACS forearms. That would be too easy. So when MSG Smith released them at 1600 on Thursday with a stern warning to ensure their LACS were fully operational, Coop knew something was up. It was the same thing as when you were told there was no morning PT and a 0800 formation. That was code for a surprise urinalysis. Sometimes the military telegraphed their moves like an eight-year-old learning to box.
Coop went over his armor with a fine-tooth comb, and demanded his team do the same. Everyone else in the company got the hint, so when 0001 Friday morning rolled around and they were all woken up by a blaring alarm they were ready.
“Get to the motorpool…double-time…in your PT uniforms. You have two minutes. MOVE!” The MSG roared with a level face.
Despite the volume and hustle in the MSG’s voice it just didn’t compare to what Alpha Company had gone through a little over a week ago. There was a big difference between getting yelled at by the MSG and hearing the roar of Spyders on strafing runs, the chorus of old chemically-powered rifles trying to punch holes in your armor, and the thundering booms of a building collapsing. Next to that, training was just…well training.
“Fall in…front leaning rest position move…the pushup! Ready! Begin! One…two…three…ONE!” They did five minutes of pushups straight as a warmup, followed by the same amount of sit-ups and air squats to get the blood flowing through their bodies.
A regular human might have doubled over and puked from that type of exertion, but Coop and company weren’t even breathing hard.
“Listen up!” The MSG barked as they recovered. “This is it for the sixteen of you. You’ve passed your qualifications, seen something approaching the real deal, and for the most part you handled your shit. Soon you will graduate HI school and advance to the rank of private first class if you aren’t one already. You will be given a two day pass to do whatever you want, and then your ass will be the property of the Commonwealth Infantry.”
Coop couldn’t stop the grin from pulling at the corners of his lips.
“But that is in the future.” The MSG smiled and Coop’s grin vanished. “Before you are entrusted to go off into the wild black yonder you need to impress me. I do not give a shit if you passed those qualifications. A retarded monkey could pass those. I do not care if you fired non-lethal rounds in anger at a bunch of Rats throwing glass bottles at you. And I certainly don’t give a flying fuck if you think you’re ready.”
Coop could have sworn the big NCO looked right at him when he said that.
“This final test is meant for you to prove to me that you’re ready to be HI.” The MSG paced in front of their small formation. “I hold the keys to your future. If you do not impress me you do not pass. It is that simple. LCDR Tully will back up my evaluation of you, so every qualification on Mars won’t mean jackshit. Impress me or the last eight weeks means nothing.” The MSG let that sink in.
“Are you ready?”
“YES, MASTER SERGEANT!” If there was any time to be motivated it was now.
“We’ll see.” The NCO ignored the motivation. “Your first task is a fifty kilometer run. Your route has been downloaded to your PAD. You have two hours to complete the run. Starting…NOW!”
They took off like sixteen bats out of hell, and Coop hoped no one got in their way because they’d get stomped on. Coop was going to do anything to get through this last test, even if that meant kicking a regular grunt to the curb.
Thankfully, that wasn’t a problem when you were running between 0030 and 0230 in the morning. The pace and distance itself wasn’t even that bad with their enhanced muscles and conditioning. Everyone made it under the time-hack. The real issue was their metabolism. All the calories needed to run that far that fast left a gaping hole in Coop’s stomach. By the time they finished the run, chow was eight hours behind them, and he could feel his body literally eating itself alive.
The MSG was waiting for them at the finish line with a not-impressed look on his face. He handed them each a liter of water and a two-thousand calorie nutrition bar. Both barely put a dent in what their body craved, but that was all they were going to get.
“Behind me are your LACS. Each of them has suffered some type of failure despite being told to be in working condition. You have one hour to discover and fix the malfunction. EXECUTE!”
<You have got to be shitting me.> The armor wouldn’t even open up to let Coop in, which meant there was a total system’s failure.
He had to use an old-school hand crank to get the armor open so he could find out what was wrong and that ate up valuable time. When he did open it enough to squeeze in he had almost no power remaining, and the MASTER WARNING icon dominated his screen.
<Fucking asshole son-of-a-bitch goat fucking dick!> Coop let out a stream of curses as he slipped back out of the armor.
The MASTER WARNING icon meant that the LACS had shit a brick and he needed to go through a full reboot one system at a time. Normally, the process took one hour. Coop had to do it in fifty-three minutes.
He completed it in fifty-two minutes and forty-five seconds.
<YES! Suck on my balls motherfucker!> Coop celebrated as the LACS HUD illuminated and initiated the start-up procedure.
The fifty kilometer run was a physical workout, but this LACS test was a mental one. It required the full, intimate knowledge of everything they’d learned several weeks ago. It was a thorough test, but as a student, Coop only thought about how much of a pain in the ass it was.
Two of the sixteen didn’t meet the standard. They were asked to leave and were recycled to the next class. The plus side of that was getting another week of training with blades. The downside was that one more failure and they were going to get their enhancements stripped from their bones and tossed back into the regular infantry. That was not something you wanted to do after you experienced the strength-multiplier HI was on the battlefield.
Their successful completion got them two two-thousand calorie bars, armor with a full hydration bladder, and ten minutes of downtime. The ten minutes seemed to last for two before coordinates started populating on the HUDs along with countdown clocks. Coop recognized those coordinates. It was the live-fire range they’d done their Joint Platform Artillery Coordinator (JPAC) certification on.
<Knowledge of our armor…check. Call for fire…check. Wanna bet our last test is going to be a hand-to-hand exercise.> It made sense, but Coop didn’t have time to think about it. He was still hungry, tired, and had twelve straight hours of fire missions ahead of him.
Everyone passed the call for fire test. Some were battered and bruised, their armor scratched and dented from close calls, but they all pulled through. Anything less than perfection during this trial was unacceptable. This was the core of HI, and the MSG made sure they knew that.
It was 1500 by the time they finished their test. Everyone else on JB Mattis had nearly gone through an entire duty day while they were out on the range blowing shit up. But Coop knew they weren’t done yet. The day didn’t end until 1700, and even that was flexible.
They’d run all the way back from the range, another couple dozen kilometers. Some fared better than others. It depended on how much you used your suit, so Coop was pretty tired by the time he jogged into the motorpool, but he was at sixty-four percent on his battery.
<Fucking morons.> He saw some people were down to less than forty percent power. <We’re about to try to gut each other with enhanced maneuvers and you burned power running.>
Coop took some long sips from his hydration bladder and punched in a series of commands. He’d saved one of the calorie bars and started chomping on it while he stood in formation. If anyone was closely monitoring him they would have torn him a new asshole, but he didn’t really care about that right now. He needed every last bit of energy he could get. A couple minutes in close combat would be worse than the entire fifty kilometer run they’d started out with.
The MSG didn’t waste any time. The armorers appeared with the training blades on grav-sleds. You could still pummel someone to death with them, but you couldn’t run someone through. Although, the sensors on the blade would let the LACS neural network know if someone delivered a killing blow.
The fourteen remaining HI troopers stood at the position of attention as the armorers methodically went through their ranks and replaced the blades. Coop savored every minute, because he knew it wouldn’t last.
“Alpha Team, step up!” The MSG was in his armor now, and he directed them to four separate marked off areas through their HUDs.
Coop went straight to his assigned cube, and watched as three other instructors emerged from the staff building. All were in LACS, and all had training blades protruding from their forearms.
“Survive for more than three minutes against an instructor and you pass.” That was the only instruction the MSG gave as the cadre picked a student and lined up opposite them.
<You’ve got to be shitting me.> Coop silently wondered why the universe hated him when SGM Crum stepped up to face him.
The SGM didn’t say anything. He just stood there like the grim reaper waiting to tear out Coop’s soul.
The SGM moved.
Coop barely got a blade into a blocking position before the SGM hit him like an angry Norse god with an affinity for hammers. It was like Coop’s blade wasn’t even there. The SGM smashed him aside, and it was only thanks to a quick turn that a death blow turned into a glancing one. That didn’t help when the SGM smashed an elbow into Coop’s armored head and knocked him to the ground.
Coop rolled instinctually. He barely missed getting impaled by the SGM’s downward thrust, but still received a slice across his back as the SGM followed up the thrust with a lash from the opposite blade. Sensors told Coop nothing had gotten through, but he’d be vulnerable to weapon’s fire in those damaged places if this was the real deal. Thankfully, this was blades only, and the SGM let Coop get back to his feet.
Coop took advantage for that and charged. <The best defense is to shove your blades up their ass.> Coop’s blades arched in a figure-eight in front of him as he tried to confuse and surprise the SGM.
It didn’t work. He got in two offensive attacks, before a kick lashed out and knocked Coop off his feet. He fell on his ass with an oomph, and barely got his blades into a blocking position above him. The SGM crashed into him like a force of nature with enough brute strength that Coop got tagged by his own blades before he could divert enough power to counter the stronger and more skilled NCO’s attack.
The SGM added to his advantage by putting the tonnage of his LACS into the attack. It was the battalion NCOIC’s first mistake. Coop put a full burst of power into driving his knee into the SGM’s side. The blow knocked the NCO off Coop, and allowed him to get back to his feet. He pressed the attack while the SGM was off balance, but it didn’t do much good as the older soldier casually batted away Coop’s strikes.
Coop stepped back and looked for an opening while quickly checking the stopwatch in the corner of his HUD.
<Only halfway there?!> Time did not fly when you were getting your ass kicked. <Fuck it!> The only thing worse than losing was going down like a little bitch, so he charged again.
He played it smart though. He didn’t let his anger or frustration get to him. He followed the techniques they’d been taught, and used every ounce of his power to keep just a centimeter away from the SGM taking his head off. He got a bit worried when he dropped below ten percent power and the SGM was still pounding on him.
All around, Coop the other members of Alpha weren’t doing so hot. Melissa hadn’t lasted two minutes against a GYSGT. She was on her back, and the GYSGT had her blades pressed against Melissa’s chest. That was a kill blow if Coop had ever seen one.
Whitehead wasn’t doing much better. He looked like he was being chased around the cube by another MSG. Whitehead was quick though. He might be able to make it to three minutes if his power levels held out.
Mike was locked in a grapple with MSG Smith. Coop’s best friend was the only one of Alpha Team that came close to the big NCO’s weight class.
<You got it, Mike. Kick his ass!>
But the moment Coop thought it, MSG Smith got his hip into Mike’s gut and flipped him over and onto the ground. There, the struggle continued with one of the MSG’s blades already pressing against Mike’s shoulder.
<Twenty more seconds.> Coop’s power level fell to six percent, but he gave it everything he had. He even made the SGM take a few steps back to avoid some chops that could have been fatal.
With five seconds left the SGM came out of left field with a high kick that sent Coop flying out of his cube and suffering from a severe case of whiplash. He was sure he’d find a big indent in his armor that matched the SGM’s boot, but that was a secondary issue to all the ERROR lights that were going off on his HUD. He was down to two percent power and systems were getting shut down to sustain critical operations.
“TIME!” Someone yelled out the sweetest words Coop had ever heard.
“Help Alpha.” The MSG ordered and Coop felt two people grab him. “Medics and armorers are standing by to pry you out of your LACS and fix anything we broke. Bravo, you’re up.”
“Did we make it?” Coop sent over the team channel that was still in the STRATNET system from the riot.
“I don’t know.” Mike didn’t sound happy, which didn’t bode well.
It took two armorers fifteen minutes to get Coop out of his armor. The SGM had done some damage with the enhanced kick, and the large dent made it difficult to open and close the suit. By the time Coop got out the other three teams had already fought the instructors with varying levels of success.
“On me.” MSG Smith announced once everyone was pried, pulled, and extracted from the LACS. “This last test was also your last lesson. None of you will survive against a seasoned HI combatant.” The MSG didn’t sugar coat it. “The rest of that training is up to you. Get with the other HI in your battalion. Train with them, and make sure you’re ready when you have to go up against a nutcracker, because all of you would have died today in a real fight.” The other cadre were already gone and back to their end of week activities.
“The good news,” the MSG continued, “is that even though some of you didn’t make it to the three minute mark you’ve impressed me enough to recommend you all for graduation.”
That caused a wave of relief to wash over them all.
“So get back outside and fall in, Alpha Company.”
Coop was too happy to care what was about to happen. He just did what he was told.
Back out in the motorpool SGM Crum stood in his CMUs with LCDR Tully and LT Swanson. The battalion command team gave them all a nod as they fell in with MSG Smith at the front of the formation.
“Congratulations on another class well-trained, Master Sergeant.” LCDR Tully and the MSG exchanged salutes and the MSG jogged to the back of the formation as the battalion commander stepped forward.
“Congratulations to you as well, Alpha Company. I’m not going to bore you with quotes on loyalty, respect, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity, or personal courage. You have all earned your place in the brotherhood of Heavy Infantry. You are now the most powerful land combat troops in the galaxy. With that power comes incredible responsibility, so use that power wisely, do your job, and bring the rain.”
With his little speech completed, the LCDR read the orders promoting several of the newly certified HI troopers to PFC. Coop among them.
There wasn’t any more ceremony, pomp, or circumstance to the graduation. This wasn’t Basic. It was only 1800 when the LCDR released the graduated troopers on their two-day pass before they went into the real infantry.
Despite wanting to go out and drink his face off Coop settled for a gut-busting dinner at a local diner with the rest of Alpha Team before hitting the sack.
<I can party over the next two days before shipping out,> he told himself.
Coop fell asleep that night one pay grade higher, with a bigger paycheck due in his account, and with a bit more self-respect. He’d survived a tough school. Now, he just needed to survive whatever the galaxy threw at him.