Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: Thor, Asgard System, United Commonwealth of Colonies
You could tell a lot about a base by their chow hall. Back at Stewart-Benning when he’d had real food for the first time, Coop thought he was living the high life. Now, he knew Training Centers’ chow halls were all about quantity not quality. Mattis was the best so far. The Fleet sustainment personnel really took care of the HI battalion. The chow hall at Tranquility on Luna fell in-between. It was rundown and dirty, but the food was decent, so at least the cook cared.
To anyone else this might not seem important, but Coop and Mike knew it meant everything. For centuries it was basic warfighting knowledge that an army marched on its stomach, and you could tell a lot about the command culture of a unit by how they fed their troops. Sustainment of a fighting force was critical for morale and a tactical necessity.
<Let’s see what the 222nd has to offer.> Coop thought as he stepped into a brigade dinning facility.
The theme was tropical in the nearly empty building. There was lots of color, exotic animals, and pictures of the beach and ocean everywhere. It was over two hours since chow ended and another five and a half until it started again, so enlisted personnel in spotless, white uniforms were efficiently cleaning the entire space.
<Maintains cleanliness, check.> Coop went down the mental checklist he had for this type of thing.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. We are currently resetting for dinner, but we have some sandwiches and drink options that are always available.” A zit-faced Private smiled and pointed them over toward a side section where a polyplast sneeze-guard protected tons of sandwiches.
<Kind, considerate, and willing to work with soldiers outside normal chow hours.> That was an important one in Coop’s mind. An HI trooper didn’t only eat three square meals a day.
People were starting to trickle in now that the duty day was ending, so Coop and Mike scanned their GICs and headed over to the sandwich section to join the growing line.
“Turkey, ham, salami…I’m in heaven.” Coop mumbled to himself as he looked over the selection. “Cheddar, provolone, swiss, gouda…what the hell is gouda?”
“Beats me.” Mike grabbed two ham and cheeses and stepped back so some of the other soldiers could get in.
Coop heard some grumbles as he took up some prime real estate, but he just couldn’t choose. He’d never had so many options before. The 222nd’s chow hall was rapidly approaching the one at Mattis.
<All of the above.> Coop finally settled on a turkey, ham, and salami with provolone cheese.
It was the last one, and his salivary glands were already working in overdrive as he reached for it.
“Move.” A big shoulder pushed him aside, grabbed the prize sandwich, and started moving away.
“Hey asshat!” Coop was yelling before he knew what was happening. His stomach and mouth were talking without bringing his brain in on the details.
The soldier who’d taken the prize sandwich was big – HI big. He was ten centimeters shorter, but probably had twenty-five kilos of muscle on Coop, who still looked pretty skinny for someone in his military occupation. The other guy visibly bristled at the remark and slowly turned to face Coop. As he turned, corporal chevrons became visible along with a pissed off scowl.
“What did you say, Meat?”
Now it was Coop’s turn to bristle. He wasn’t fresh meat anymore. He was done with Basic, had graduated pretty close to the top of his HI class, and already had one combat drop under his belt.
“I called you an asshat, dickcheese. You took my sandwich. That’s a pretty fuckin’ stupid thing to do.” Coop saw Mike shake his head and walk off toward the tables. Coop was in this one alone.
Being called an asshat and dickcheese were the magic words. The CPL completely turned to evaluate Coop. He didn’t look impressed. Then he put the sandwich in his CMU pocket and cracked his knuckles.
“If you want it, come and get it, Meat.”
That was all the invitation Coop needed. He reached back, grabbed a random sandwich and chucked it right into the CPL’s face. The flimsy wrappings didn’t hold up to a pitch thrown faster than a major league baseball player’s. Meat, cheese, and a variety of condiments exploded all over the CPL’s face.
Coop would have made a homoerotic joke if he’d had the time, but the CPL was already on the move. The other soldiers in the sandwich area were running for cover as the two HI closed. The CPL reacted first, throwing a one-two combo with surprising speed for someone with his bulk. Coop dodged the first, parried the second with his forearm, and unleased a jaw-cracking punch that landed.
The CPL’s head snapped to the side and he stumbled, but was able to dance backwards as Coop tried to capitalize on the small victory. The CPL shook his head once, and reacquired Coop with an unnerving smile on his face.
Then he came at Coop again.
Coop was ready for more and stepped closer to engage, but then the CPL changed tactics. He came in high and went low at the last moment. Coop didn’t have time to sprawl before CPL swept in low and put his shoulder into Coop’s stomach. Next thing Coop knew, he was being lifted off his feet and up into the air. He had no leverage, but he drove one elbow into the CPL’s head before he was twisted in the air and the ground rushed up to meet him. Coop landed hard on his back, cracking the cheap floor, knocking the wind from his lungs, and allowing the CPL to pass his guard and get a full mount.
What came next was a blur of fists and blood as the CPL pounded Coop’s face in.
Coop didn’t give up though. He blocked, bucked, and they rolled all over the floor. It was one hell of a mess. Both combatant’s blood was everywhere by the time Mike got in there and pulled them apart.
Still, Coop was the clear loser. All you had to do was look at his face. The CPL was by no means pretty, but he walked away. Coop was barely conscious.
“Happy?” Mike leaned over Coop munching on his second sandwich as Coop lost consciousness.
Bitter smelling chemicals snapped Coop out of a fever dream some unknown time later. The smell of antiseptic was cloaked by the smelling salts but eventually made its presence known.
“Owww.” Coop struggled to sit up and remember what the hell had just happened.
“Easy soldier,” a plump nurse put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back onto his back. “You had quite a fall.” Her face said she didn’t believe that Coop had “fallen” at all, but wasn’t going to question it.
“What’s going on? Where am I?” Coop looked around. There were only a few beds in the immaculately kept space.
“The brigade infirmary. Your buddies brought you in for after duty sick call. Said you fell off a second story barracks porch and landed on your face.” Her snort told him that she definitely smelled the bullshit. “We held you overnight and kept you unconscious as nanites rebuilt the bones in your face. You won’t win any beauty contests for a while, but you’ll make a one hundred percent recovery.”
“He’s never been pretty.” Mike appeared in the doorway.
“Yeah, tell me about it.” The HI trooper who had beaten Coop’s ass stood next to him.
The CPL had some freshly reknit flesh over his knuckles and a smile on his face that showed some rapidly receding bruising.
“Well,” the nurse cut through their little moment. “You’re free to go. PT starts soon so I suggest you hurry.”
<PT?> Coop blinked unknowingly before finding a clock on the wall. It was almost 01:00. He’d been out for over sixteen hours.
Coop swung his feet off the bed and gingerly touched his face. Nothing hurt. The nurse had done a good job putting humpty dumpty back together again. A few steps told Coop his balance and equilibrium were fine, but he kept his guard up as he approached the CPL.
He nearly flinched back when the older HI trooper held out his hand.
“Nice to meet you, Private First Class Cooper. I’m Corporal Anders, HI for Charlie Company 2224th Infantry Battalion. Sorry about your fall.”
Coop eyed the man for a second before grasping his hand firmly. “I can be clumsy sometimes. No worries.”
And just like that the hatchet was buried, and invitations to do some blade training were exchanged. According to Anders, the 2224th only had four HI troopers for their whole battalion. They were supposed to get Coop and Mike to bolster their numbers, but the 2222nd’s deployment took precedent.
That was about the time Coop and Mike got pings on their PADs from the SGT informing them that they had five minutes to get into formation. The rest of the rear detachment was waiting for them. Despite Coop’s recent foray into unconsciousness, they were both in formation within three minutes. That gave the plenty of time to make brief introductions before reveille.
Once the ancient bugle ceased over the PA system and everyone dropped their salutes, the SGT did an about face to address the formation.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it,” she started, immediately putting everyone on edge. “Things have gotten dicey out in York Sector. Over the next forty-eight hours we’re going to be inprocessing over a hundred and fifty new troops. These replacements are immediately going to be sent forward to the battalion. In addition, Division command has relayed down the chain that the 2223rd and 2224th are deploying as well. It’ll be twelve months minimum. Shit is going sideways in York and they need some of us grunts to step on some Blockie throats sooner rather than later.”
<Shit. Seems like we’ll be getting some real life training in with Anders.> Coop didn’t look around, but he assumed other formations up and down the beach were getting similar news.
“We’re just going to do a short run this morning. First replacements should be coming into the spaceport around 04:00, so I want everyone shit, showered, and shaved by then. The LT, myself, and PFCs Cooper and Enders will be present to corral them. I want stations ready to go when we bring the first shipment back. S1 get them in the system. S2 make sure classifications are up to date. S3 make sure S1 has the latest assignment data and we’ve got bunks for them. S4 you’re going to lead a layout inspection of everyone’s equipment and get them what they need. S5 and 6 you’re going to get all of their contact information. You’ll deal with any dependent issues, and ensure wills are current.” She scanned the small assemble of soldiers. “We need to get these people in and out professionally. Let’s show them how the Quad-Deuce does it.”
“Ghostriders!” The soldiers, except Coop and Mike, sounded off with the battalion motto.
“Good.” The SGT smiled. “Let’s get warmed up. Front leaning rest position move!”
Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies
It was official. Eve fucking hated space. Zero gravity training was just the nail in the coffin.
There was no up, down, left, right or any cardinal direction in the vast empty void of black. It was hard enough to do everything when there was a planet beneath you to act as a guide, but if you were in the middle of the abyss you were up a creek with the paddle fully lodged up your ass.
She passed, by the slimmest of margins, and promised herself to never volunteer for anything ship-related for the entirety of her military career; which made the next training that much more miserable.
The destroyer moved at a steady clip just above Styx’s atmosphere. In the belly of the mechanical beast the ranger candidates stood at the position of parade rest while SGM Queen looked them over.
“I’m not gonna bullshit you.” The old war-dog had never blown smoke up their asses. “We have a five percent casualty rate on this training iteration.” His hard eyes scanned the remaining faces of the ranger class.
They’d started with over sixty and were now under thirty. More than fifty percent washed out, gave up, or were asked to leave. Eve “Ice” Berg wasn’t going to let any of those three happen to her. The only way she was not becoming a ranger was the fourth option: death. And even then they’d award her the tab posthumously.
She did the math easily in her head. If they followed the statistical pattern at least one person in the class was going to die today.
“Fear is for the weak.” The SGM continued. “We don’t give in to fear. We aren’t HI. WE grab fear by the nut sack and squeeze.”
“Rangers lead the way!” The class roared.
They’d been allowed to say the nearly five hundred year old motto just recently, and it was just the motivational tool they needed this late in their training.
“Rangers lead the way!”
“RANGERS LEAD THE WAY!”
“Sound off for equipment check!”
Ports on the back of the LACS model V3 opened up at the command and cords slithered down from the ceiling. The rear person took the cord and jacked it into the LACS in front of them. The destroyer’s neural networks did the final updates and ran a quick diagnostic on the armor’s systems. It all took about three seconds and either returned a green “GO” or a red “NO GO”.
“Three, ok…!” They counted off.
It was another half millennia old tradition that served the dual purpose of verifying the comms links for the chalk – chalks being the group of ranger candidates doing the drop together.
Two fifteen-person chalks would be jumping: the twenty-nine students and the SGM himself. SGM Queen never made a trainee do something he wasn’t willing to do himself.
“ALL OK, DROPMASTER!” Eve had the honor of being the first candidate behind the SGM.
“One minute.” The sound of the destroyer’s skipper echoed in all of the helmets.
There were a couple of different drop pods in the Commonwealth military’s arsenal. Some could carry half a squad and were mostly used for planetary invasions, but there were also one man stealth pods for covert atmospheric entries. For today, the ranger candidates were using standard single person pods. They were cheap and disposable.
Eve swung into her tube on the port missile battery and dropped down into the pod. It sealed herself behind her, just barely missing her helmeted head. She came to an abrupt halt at the bottom with a clang.
“FILL PODS!” The SGM’s second command came half a second before she got bombarded on all sides by dense gel.
If anyone had been claustrophobic they had gotten over it or washed out. For Eve, the armor helped. It was another layer between her and everything the universe could throw at her.
Once filled, a current went through the pods and partially solidified the gel, effectively trapping everyone inside a protective cocoon. The five-person pods had brackets that soldiers could be bolted into, but that wasn’t cost effective for the one-person rapid atmospheric entry vehicles.
There was the grinding of gears as the pods were loaded into the missile tubes, followed by complete and absolute silence. Somewhere on the bridge of the warship a silicone and human brain were teaming up to find the best shot for the ranger candidates. The equations were complex, and one misplaced decimal point could have them going SPLAT or burning up on reentry.
<Don’t think about it.> She chided herself for the stupid mistake. She took some deep breaths and focused on what happened when they hit the ground.
The SGM hadn’t told them what was going to happen that morning in the barracks. He just told them to pack a standard load and get to the transport.
“God speed.” The skipper’s voice interrupted the silence of their pod/tomb. The next minute would tell which description was the most accurate.
Eve blacked out from the velocity. That was the drawback of these pods. The gel helped with the G-force, but nothing beat the anti-grav plates built into the better and bigger versions.
She came to about the time she hit the first big jerk on reentry. Even the gel wasn’t enough to keep her from getting bounced around a bit.
“Sound off!” It was the first time she’d heard strain in the SGM’s voice.
“Pod zero-one!” Eve did as she was ordered along with pinging STRATNET as a redundancy.
Everyone was doing the same and following her example with STRATNET – except one.
“Damnit!” Now the SGM sounded pissed.
Eve knew there was nothing she could do. They’d been told in training there was nothing they could do. In the simulations all of this had been simulated, not to this extend, but they’d done their best to mimic the hopelessness of this situation. Eve still found herself pinging the unresponsive pod on TACCOM right up until the end.
“BRACE BRACE BRACE!” Eve bent her knees as much as possible with the restrictive gel. Even then she felt like her ankle nearly exploded from the force of the impact.
She verified the drag chute had deployed, and it had. <Fat lot of good that did.> She winced as the gel became liquid and spilled out of the pod when it opened.
Eve immediately took a knee, using her pod as cover, and scanned the area with every sensor she had and the old reliable mark-one eyeball.
She tried to ignore the sensors showing the medical stats of the first chalk: twelve green, two yellow, and one black. The tag above it read SGT DIGGLE.
Eve felt like she’d been shot. Her friend and mentor was gone just like that. <All because of a fucking pod malfunction or some fleet puke couldn’t punch in the right digits!> Murder flooded her mind, but her physical senses kept scanning the area for threats.
A rally point blazed on her STRATNET screen and she automatically started moving toward it. A few hundred meters and five minutes later the first chalk was gathered in a circle with Eve and the SGM in the center.
“Private First Class Berg, you are the patrol leader. Your mission is as follows…”
Eve’s emotions took a back seat to the mission. Everything had to take a back seat to the mission.