Mark “Coop” Cooper
Location: Thor, Asgard System, United Commonwealth of Colonies
<Seriously…this is it?> Coop stood on the busy sidewalk outside a pub.
A holographic neon sign shone above the door. It showed a pirate, dancing a jig, complete with musical notes floating out of its mouth. Above him in big red letter was the watering hole’s name: The Peg Leg. Coop looked between the name and the holographic pirate and saw that his right leg was missing below the knee with a wooden peg in its place. In an age of regenerative therapies, seeing someone with a prosthetic was beyond weird.
“I think we’ve got the right place.” Mike pushed passed Coop and activated the door.
Cool air blossomed onto the sidewalk the moment the metal hissed open. Rich smells wafted from the pub. The savory scents of cooked meats were the strongest followed by the bitter tang of various alcoholic beverages. Beneath it all was a bit of BO, but that was just a fact of life on a planet where the average nighttime temperature in the fall was thirty-two degrees Celsius.
“Shut the door!”
“Who the fuck are you?!”
A variety of greetings were thrown at the two young HI troopers as they stepped into the space. It was bigger than it looked from the outside, and for good reason. Every man and woman in the room was over two hundred centimeters tall and had to weigh nearly that. Even the women at the bar, in smartcloth sun dresses and short skirts looked like they could break a normal man over their knees.
This was the local HI bar, and it was invitation only.
“It’s ok, they’re with us.” SSG Hightower and CPL Anders showed up quick. “They’re newly assigned to the Quad-Deuce.
The statement had an immediate effect on the group. It sobered them up quick. Most turned back to their drinks with a somber look, and one couple at the bar even wiped away a few tears. Coop caught it all but didn’t say anything. Whatever was going on he’d know soon enough.
“We’re back here.” The SSG led the way to two adjoining booths at the back of the room. They were semi-private and already had a respectable amount of booze on them. There were ten people present, and with Coop and Mike that made it the even dozen. The full complement of the 2222nd, 2223rd, and 2224th’s HI troopers on Thor were present.
“Now that we’re all here I’ll start with introductions. Everyone, this is Private First Class Mark Cooper and Private First Class Michael Enders. They’re replacements for the 2222nd right out of training from Mars. Anyone remember Master Sergeant Smith?” There were a few laughs but mostly shrugs. “If Smith trained them then we know they know their shit. More so, they both saw action in a riot back on Earth.” That perked a few ears up. “Strictly nonlethal, but they got to do more than shoot, move, and communicate against instructors or machines. Cooper here got a CAM out of it…and a formal reprimand for excessive use of force.”
Coop cringed at the bit of information, but it was quickly washed away by the ruckus cheer from the group. Hightower grinned over at Coop and motioned his arms for everyone to settle down.
“Enders also handled himself with distinction during the evacuation process. We’re glad to have two newbies who know their heads from their assholes.” The SSG finished up and gave Coop and Mike the floor.
“Uhumm,” Coop coughed, not really sure what to say. “First, just call me Coop, and I’m going to do my best to pull my weight, not die at a bad time, and kill people that need killin’. That’s my job and I plan to do it well.”
Giant steins of beer slammed against the table in approval as Coop stepped back.
Mike stepped up. He was nearly twenty centimeters larger after their enhancements and even though they were still new to their bodies he was one of the biggest guys in the room. He was – as always – a man of few words.
“I’m Mike. Coop and I’ve got your backs.”
There was some laughing and more pounding of approval.
“Short and sweet.” Hightower took back control. “Now, a brief intro for this rowdy bunch.” He started with the 2224th’s people on the right. “You’ve got Staff Sergeant Deer and Staff Sergeant Walden there. The lovely lady is SGT Genesee, and the butt-ugly guy is SGT Wood. The two over there trying to act like they aren’t friends with benefits are Corporal Raven and Private First Class Hill.” The last two troopers blushed but didn’t deny their extracurricular activities.
“Nice to meet you,” PFC Hill stood up and extended her hand for the 2223rd. She was shorter and leaner than Coop, but her blue eyes were sharp. “Glad I’m not the fucking new guy anymore.”
That sent a round of cheers up from the 2223rd’s guys and gals.
“You already know Corporal Anders.” Hightower waved over to his own small group of troopers. “That’s Sergeant Colony and our last member is Private First Class Greenview. Greenie was the FNG before Hill.”
“I’ll be happy to pass down a few words of wisdom.” Greenview had a charming grin that Coop had seen on more than one lady-killer. “First off, Gunney Topper might seem like a hardass but he’s just trying to keep you all alive. Second, do whatever Staff Sergeant Quigg says or you’ll know the true meaning of hardass. Lastly,” his face became serious, “Remember your training. You’re support for the grunts not their savior. If you forget that, you and the people around you are fucked.”
A dark cloud descended over the table, and Coop didn’t dare ask about it. Not even to figure out who the GYSGT and SSG were.
“We’ve hailed our new troopers. Now for the farewells.” The SSG grabbed two big steins of beer and handed them to Coop and Mike before grabbing his own.
“Tonight we say farewell to Corporal Sienna Pace and Sergeant Mitchell Takahashi. They were our colleagues, our friends, and our family. We salute them.”
They all drank.
“We remember them.”
They all drank again.
“And above all, we will avenge them.”
Everyone tipped their steins back and kept drinking. Coop and Mike followed their example and chugged their drinks until they were drained dry. Then, they lifted them high and smashed them on the ground.
No one in the bar turned their head when a dozen polyplast containers shattered. In fact, everyone in the bar started chugging what they had before smashing their glasses as well.
Coop watched the whole ritual with fascination, and surprisingly felt a dull ache work its way into his heart. He’d never met CPL Pace or SGT Takahashi. He couldn’t have picked them out of a lineup, or even told anyone they existed until a minute ago. But in this moment he felt the pain of their loss.
These were two people who’d done what he’d done. They’d gone through the rigors of Basic. They’d survived the instruction of someone like MSG Smith and been entrusted with the protection of hundreds of infantry soldiers. They were HI. Just like Coop was HI. That made them family, and it always hurt when you lost family.
He walked up to the bar and held over his GIC for the bartender. “Another round for my people.”
He didn’t care that it wiped out what remained of the extra cash he’d earned on Luna. His family was hurting, and they needed to drown their sorrows today so they’d be ready to fight tomorrow.
“Cheers, Coop.” Hightower raised his glass to Coop as the bartender delivered the drinks. “That’s a class act right there.”
That drink wasn’t the last. The dozen HI troopers were drinking late into the night. The older veterans shared their war stories, legends, and the absolute bullshit they’d heard or witnessed during their careers. The educational lessons lasted until last call. The group stumbled back to their homes to grab a few hours a sleep before assembling for morning formation.
There was no PT the next morning. They assembled with all their gear for a twelve month deployment to the Rim. Two battalions and some change were heading to war, and sixteen of those two thousand soldiers were nursing some pretty bad hangovers to start it off.
Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies
Several tons of pressure drove down into the automaton’s joint as Eve stomped on its neck. There was a sickening crunch of metal and circuitry. The machine trembled like a man in its death throes before going still. Just to be sure, Eve put two rounds into its head before moving on.
The sprawling structure her class was clearing rivaled the Dojo back at Stewart-Benning in size. It was a maze of rooms, open spaces, and just about every different type of environment a Ranger would find themselves in.
“Room 547 clear, one hostile down, ready to move.” She radioed in her SITREP and waited for this iteration’s patrol leader to send her more coordinates.
She had already taken her turn as the class leader and exceeded expectations. She’d commanded a raid on a small town and accomplished all of her mission objectives with no casualties.
She sent a series of commands to her LACS while she waited and a nozzle extended toward her mouth. She took three large gulps from the water bladder imbedded in her armor before letting it retract. She was still hungry and tired, but not quite as thirsty. They’d been fighting for the last thirty hours nonstop. It was a test of endurance. They needed to show the instructors that they could remain sharp after days of fighting.
<Rangers never quit. Rangers lead the way.> Eve repeated the mantra a few times in her mind before the next rally point appeared on her HUD.
“Moving.” She walked to the door and moved to either side to check if it was clear. Then, just to make sure, she stuck her gauntleted hand out. Immediately, rounds started to ping off the architecture around her.
“Contact. Same location.” She checked the HUD for her teammates’ locations to ensure there wouldn’t be any blue on blue. “Engaging.”
She backed up to the edge of the room and toggled down her menus to find what she was looking for. ENGAGE GRAV-BOOTS. She hit the button with her eyes and felt her legs start to vibrate from the knees down.
The grav-boot function was something unique to the V3 LACS. V2’s didn’t have it because it was too expensive and they didn’t have the battery capacity for sustained operational use. V3’s were unique to the SPECOPS community for now, so their maintenance was manageable until the R&D people could figure out a way to mass-produce the V3’s distinctive aspects affordably. But that was for the bean counters to worry about. Eve only cared about what she could do with it.
Despite the candidates’ early expectations, grav-boots weren’t rocket boots. They couldn’t blast around the place defying gravity like a 21st century superhero. A more accurate way to describe the technology was grav-skates, and Eve would be personally lobbying for them to change the name to avoid confusion. The boots only allowed a person to defy gravity with the use of momentum and strength. The tech could only do so much.
That was why Eve had to skate around the circumference of her room like an old-school figure skater to build up acceleration before leaving the room. When she did she shot through the doorway a meter off the ground. She went right over the walkway, over the safety railing, and into the open space that dropped a few dozen meters before abruptly ending in a concrete floor.
More automatons immediately started firing when she cleared the opening. A few rounds hit her as she angled herself to the side and skidded like she was stopping on ice, but her angle change and speed made her hard to hit. Automatons were good artificial soldiers up to a point, but expecting the unexpected just wasn’t in their programming.
Her HUD updated with their positions in a heartbeat and she started to unleash hell. Several burps of her Buss sent 3mm plasma tipped rounds downrange. They tore through the weak sheet metal walkway and chewed up one automaton. It fell over the safety rails smoking and crackling.
A round hit her shoulder and spun her around, but she adjusted and her scales did their job. With her momentum cut she started to pump her legs, pushing them out to the side in a sweeping motion, and she skated forward. She cycled her Buss to a different tube and a loud thump preceded the explosion of an EW grenade. The chaff hid her from the automatons sensors and she changed tactics again. Instead of skating down the aisle and engaging the bots directly, she changed course into the same circle she’d been doing earlier. But this time she pushed gradually with her legs. Her elevation began to climb with each circle until she was a dozen meters above where the defenders were crouching and searching for her.
She came out of her last circle going around a hundred kilometers per hour and shot forward. She set a path for a gradual arch downward and let gravity take over. The bots weren’t even looking in the right place. Her first burst took the lead automaton in the head and chewed its silicone brain into mush. The second turned and squeezed off a round, but missed before her Buss’ bellow ended its artificial life.
She pumped the boots to slow her descent and adjust course. She still hit the ground hard but she rolled with it into a combat roll, bounced back to her feet, and kept on going. The boots stopped vibrating, and the entire maneuver had cost less than one percent of her power.
“Two more tangos down in Area 156, proceeding to rally point.” She zoomed out on her HUD to see the entire complex.
They were seventy-five percent of the way through the structure. <Another ten hours and we’ll wrap this mission up with a nice little bow for the Sergeant Major.> She stopped and did a quick peek as the open area narrowed into a chokepoint that led into a single hallway a hundred meters long.
She toggled through her different visions options and identified laser tripwires all over the place. She needed to look for another ingress point to the next part of the building.
“I’m held up at,” she relayed the location. “Looking for another entrance.”
“Roger that, Ice, but haul ass. We’ve got a lot more company heading our way and need to consolidate.” A new rally point sprang to life on her HUD.
She also got a video of a wide open space at the end of the building that was quickly filling with half a battalion’s worth of automatons. In the background she could see energy weapons being wheeled into strategic locations by the artificial soldiers.
<Yeah I need to move.> She lobbed a grenade down the hallway, triggered the booby-traps and hauled ass.
This was the big one, and she wasn’t going to miss the party.