Two Worlds – Chapter 142

Benjamin Gold

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “No. Absolutely not, Sir.”

Ben sat in front of Charlie Company Commander Lieutenant Jacobi Wentworth and tried not to let his frustration show.

“Please, Lieutenant, just let me ask him.”

“Lieutenant Commander, it’s not a question of whether Private Cooper wants to come on your mission. It’s a question of his ability.” The Infantry LT’s tone was frosty. Ben might outrank her, but she knew he was in her wheelhouse.

“If I could just…”

“Sir, respectfully…” The next words out of the LT’s mouth were unlikely to be respectful; otherwise she wouldn’t start out a sentence like that. “…I don’t know why you want Private Cooper, but you can’t have him. Not only do we have training scheduled over the next month that he needs to attend, but he is also yellow on medical. Even if he wanted to, and I agreed to it, he still wouldn’t be able to go. Plus,” now her eyes matched the frostiness of her tone, “I’ve been waiting over eighteen months to get the HI compliment for my company to finally be one-hundred-percent. I’m not going to let that slip through my fingers because you want an extra layer of defense on whatever your mission is.”

Ben sighed and leaned back in the chair. He wanted Cooper for this mission because aside from SGT O’Neil, Cooper was the only person he had complete trust in. That was trust born in blood and sweat. Once you carried another man across a space station while simultaneously killing the enemy, you formed a bond. Ben had six confirmed kills from that mission and almost bought the farm at least a dozen times. Stats like that changed a man. Most importantly, it made him want what he wanted if he was going to go back into that type of situation again.

If he was being honest with himself, he didn’t feel completely safe without HI Trooper Cooper at his side.

The question was how to get what he wanted, and the answer to that question was the LT sitting in front of him.

“Let’s cut the bullshit,” Ben skipped any thinly veiled formality between them. “What is it going to take for you to sign off on it?”

“Sir, it doesn’t…”

“Don’t concern youself with the medical issue,” he cut her off. “I want to know what you want to sign him over to me for five days, a week tops?” If Ben knew one thing about people, it was that they always wanted something. His father had taught him that, and the LT was no different.

He’d made sure to read up on the LT before meeting up with her. Jacobi Wentworth was a bit of an oddity. She was a fourth generation East Newfoundlander. The system was about as far from the Eastern Block as you could get, so there wasn’t much of a military presence. They had a small system defense force – no more than a handful of cruisers for commerce protection – but Fleet units only passed through in transit to more strategic locations.

The LT came from a standard middle-class family. Father was a senior NCO in the defense force before retiring after thirty years and moving into teaching. Her mother was a medical administrator. There was nothing in the LT’s history that explained why she would go off and join the Infantry, aside from adventure or a desire to prove herself.

Judging by a glance at the chest of her CMU’s, Ben was betting on the latter. The majority of the ribbons were standard for an Infantry officer with six years of service. It didn’t escape his notice that she’d been serving longer than him, but he outranked her. He doubted she’d missed that either.

In that time, she’d achieved a Basic Combat Drop Badge. The silver badge was in a place of prominence above everything else. Since they were in peacetime up until recently, most of those drops had been police actions. Four had been small riots, but one was a legitimate armed conflict against the New Caliphate. The skirmish between the New Caliphate and Maccabbee Alliance had drawn Commonwealth attention. The two independent states were in a constant state of tension, and things had boiled over. The LT had been part of the force sent to restore peace, and she’d received a Purple Heart for her troubles.

All of that meant that the LT had every intention of being a career Infantry officer. She was always looking for the next challenge, something to better herself and her soldiers, and that was something Ben could help with.

The LT gave Ben a piercing look for a few seconds before leaning back in her own chair. “This is stuff you would agree to give me even if I can do nothing about the medical status.”

Ben was taking a risk here, but there was no reward without a little risk. “Yes,” he answered.

She jumped on him after his answer. “I want a week of spaceborne training: EVA ops, ship assault, the whole nine yards. I want to have the only qualified company in my battalion ready for spaceborne action.”

Ben expected something like this. Skippers of warships didn’t like to spend a lot of time accommodating the marines’ training because they had their own mandatory assignments to complete. There was always too much crap on a skipper’s plate, and even after delegating a lot of that, the last thing he wanted was marines running all around the outside hull of his ship playing war.

Thankfully, it was also something Ben could oblige. Argo hadn’t been doing anything but sitting around for the last three months, so he was all caught up on his paperwork and crew qualifications. Allowing the cross-training with the marines might actually be a good mark on his record. ‘Extends sphere of influence outside chain of command’ was a bullet point on the OER after all.

“Deal.” Ben extended his hand and the LT took it.

“Follow me.” The LT wasn’t willing to take his word for it. Together, they marched down the hall to the Battalion operations NCO’s office.

The MSG was more than a little surprised to be pushing through agreed upon spaceborne qualification training between Ben and the LT, but he didn’t question it. He put it on the schedule and had the Battalion Commander’s signature within the hour. A minute later, the LT signed the temporary duty paperwork. All Ben had to do was get Cooper’s medical status to green and he’d have his HI trooper.

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Coop was enjoying his night off. He needed to. With qualifications and an FTX coming up he didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to get off base and unwind. It all depended how much of a Hard ass GYSGT Weitz was if his future held spending the majority of time sleeping in a charging rack or not. Coop didn’t want to think about that. He needed to live in the moment, and that moment currently involved some farmer’s daughter with daddy issues grinding her almost-bare ass against his crotch.

The lighting was dim in his favorite strip club for purely disreputable reasons. Coop liked the place because the security was lazy and the girls were down for just about anything. Life on a new colony could be tough for some, and these establishments gave those struggling women a way to make easy cash.

“So the new LT is hot?” Mike asked. His chair was facing the opposite direction, because looking at his friend while sporting a woody was just weird.

“Smoking.” Coop supplied the correct adjective. “Easily a nine, maybe even a ten.”

“Why not just give her a ten?” Mike asked as his own stripper strutted her stuff around his massive frame.

“You got to be a freak in the sack if you want a ten in my book.” They both laughed and chugged the last of their beer. It was cheap shit that tasted like piss-water, but it was cheap.

The song came to the end and the stripper gave him one last side to side rub of her ass before rising seductively to her feet. Her eyes lingered on Coop for a moment, and when he didn’t move to deposit more money in her account she started walking away.

“Oh, come on, Destiny!” he called after her, but she didn’t look back. “Could you at least bring me a beer?”

That earned him the finger from Destiny – which he tried not to read into the irony of – and another laugh from Mike.

“So, you and Harper?” Coop wasn’t willing to go down without a fight.

“No, we’re done.” There was a hint of sadness in Mike’s voice, but he swallowed it along with a gulp of beer. Unlike Coop, he paid for another song. “I haven’t heard from her in two months. I expected to come back from the last op with at least a message waiting in my inbox, but there was nothing.”

“The Unwritten Rule.” Coop nodded his head and just sat awkwardly in his chair without booze or woman to keep him company.

The unwritten rule in the military was no contact after an agreed upon amount of time was as surefire sign that things were over. With travel times being what they were, it could take a while to get word from place to place, but two months was more than enough time to get an e-mail from New Lancashire to Luna and back at least a few times. There were a couple of explanations for the absence. Harper might be under some type of quarantine from an infectious nanite bioweapon outbreak, she could have died in some tragic training accident, but more than likely she was just polishing some other guy’s nob now. Probably a doctor knowing how determined she was to have nice things.

“Damn,” Mike sighed. “She gave one hell of a blowjob.”

Coop laughed.

“You want a blowjob?” asked the stripper. “That’s going to be two-fifty and I need your medical clearance. I don’t want rotten dick in my throat.”

“Deal.” Mike hopped up so fast he nearly bowled over the woman. “See ya, Coop.”

“If you can afford to throat-bang her you can afford to buy me a drink!” Coop called after his friend, but only succeeded in getting the finger from him and the stripper.

Three months of recovery had taken its toll on Coop’s bank account. You couldn’t spend a lot of money when you were busy doing shit on a warship. If you met the right group of people you might be able to set up some friendly gambling games, but not much more than that. On the contrary, it was amazing how fast cash flew out the door when you were busy sitting around on your ass all day long. Coop only had enough for one more beer. The bright side was that he was getting paid on Friday, so he’d be able to do more than buy a few dances next time he visited.

“Allow me.” The last person Coop ever expected to see in this joint took a seat and ordered top-shelf bottle service.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold?” The half-chub left over from Coop’s last dance vanished. “I didn’t think officers were allowed to even come in here.”

“Sure we’re allowed, but not advised.” Gold was dressed in civvies so it wasn’t immediately recognized that he was a Fleet officer. “I’m off duty, Cooper, so please just call me Ben.”

“I’m going to stick with sir, Sir.” Coop’s spidey-senses were tingling. This felt like a trap of some sort. “What can I do for you?” He proceeded with caution.

“I’ve got a proposition for you.” Ben turned around Mike’s vacated chair, accepted the drinks, but waved off the squads-worth of strippers that gravitated toward his expensive clothing. “I want you to come on a mission with me.”

Coop let out a sigh of relief. He had an easy out.” Sorry, Sir.” He patted his leg. “I’m still yellow. I can’t do anything until I’m cleared, and then you’d have to get my LT to sign off on it. Good luck with…”

“Already done.” Ben’s email arrived on Coop’s PAD with a ping. “Your LT has agreed to temporarily assign you to me for the next week. After that, you will return to Charlie Company.”

“That’s nice of her,” Coop read over the orders but that didn’t stop the confusion. “It still doesn’t fix my medical readiness.”

“That I’m leaving up to you.”

Another ping rang out from Coop’s PAD. It was an alert from his bank account. His balance had just jumped from pennies to over a grand.

“A thousand now, and five more when you get your medical status up to green.” Ben sounded like he was talking about the weather and not something that was clearly against regulations.

<Is it?> Coop couldn’t help but think he’d never read about something like this being against the UCMJ, but then again, Coop hadn’t put much stock in military law since the day he joined up.

“Two questions. First, why me?” Coop critiqued the officer.

“I want you because I know you can handle yourself if things go sideways. You’ve done it for me before, and this time I’m offering even more incentive.”

<He’s got a point.> Coop scratched his chin. He really needed cash.

“Ok, but how am I supposed to do it?” That was the real question.

“That’s for you to find out, Private, and you’ve got five thousand reasons to figure it out in the next six hours. You need to report to Argo at 0900.” Ben smiled, got to his feet , and slid the bottle of Earth-made whiskey to Coop. “That’s on me. Consider it a bonus. You’re a resourceful man, Cooper. I have faith in you.”

The LCDR walked away and Mike returned with a smile on his face. “Who was that?”

Coop didn’t say anything. His mind was running the possibilities and coming up with jackshit. <How can I do it…how can I do it…how can I do it?> He took a few swigs from the bottle hoping for some liquid genius.

Surprisingly enough, it worked.

“Here.” The bottle was half empty, and he was more than a little buzzed when he tossed it to Mike.

“Shit, is this…?” Mike never got the question out before Coop was at the door and pushing his way into the cool night.

He used his PAD to do a quick search, used a little technological trickery he’d learned in the PHA and adapted to his current situation, and headed off at a stumbling run toward his destination.

The small set of apartments wasn’t that far from the hospital. It made sense. It was the perfect place for an E5 – who was allowed to live off base – to live. Coop found the door, composed himself, and knocked with a sense of urgency that didn’t come across as too stalkerish.

Sandy answered the door in a nightgown and a sleepy look on her face. A face that lit up but looked a little confused at the sight of him.

“Coop?”

“No, Sandy. I’ve got to say this.” He took a deep breath. “You’ve meant everything to me over the last three months. You put me back together, made me a man again. I can’t ever thank you enough for that, but I also can’t stop how I feel. I can’t describe it,” he put a hand over his chest, “but I know there is something here. I’m not sure if…”

Sandy cut him off by grabbing him by the shirt, pulling him inside, and plastering her lips to his. She had to jump up and practically climb up his chest to do it, but she did it, and that was a good sign. From there it was just a matter of finding the bedroom and stamina.

<And that’s how you do it!> Coop thought a few hours later when Sandy was in a sex coma, and he was able to access her PAD.

All it took was a few clicks and swipes and Coop went from yellow to green on his medical readiness report, and because he was a gentleman he stuck around for a morning quickie before they both needed to report in. She went to the hospital, and he went to the armory. He was cutting it close, but he would be able to make it up to Abe and Argo by 0900, and he had one hell of a sendoff.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 107

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: JB Armstrong/Tranquility, Luna, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 A promise was a promise, and a promise before combat was one Coop wasn’t willing to break. After their quick, barebones graduation, he and Mike hopped the next shuttle to Luna. The normally stoic Mike, always a man of few words, was practically giddy at the prospect of seeing Harper again. The two Basic fuckbuddies had been trying a long distance relationship since Basic graduation, and so far things seemed to be working.

If Coop was being honest with himself he was a little jealous they were making it work. He hadn’t received anything from Eve since they said goodbye.  But that was old Coop’s insecurities. New Coop was excited to see a new city and to sample its local delicacies.

Tranquility and the adjacent Joint Base Armstrong were anything but new. JB Armstrong was built on the foundation of the initial lunar landing site at Mare Tranquilitatis – The Sea of Tranquility – and had been built up and militarized since the 2030s. The resulting base was a hodgepodge of buildings on the edge of the city with no thought being spared to urban planning. But that was understandable. At first the architects were only worried about staying alive.

Tranquility started as an accompanying research station a few decades later, and both had grown by leaps and bounds over the last several centuries. Now, about ten million people called Tranquility home, and a brigade kept a close watch over this portion of Commonwealth territory. Luna had ten major cities spread across the surface, each guarded by a Brigade, with a division-level command being in charge of the entire planetary defense. But that was just the army units on the surface. The orbitals were a whole difference story.

“Now that’s something you don’t see every day.” Coop had whistled when their shuttle crossed the defensive rings that encircled Earth’s only moon.

Luna was a centuries-old Commonwealth territory and one of the first investments of the new starfaring nation after its creation. It fought a war to win it, and it was going to keep it. The two rings covered in railguns, point defense lasers, energy cannons, and missiles tubes were capable of holding off a sizable enemy fleet, which made it a military stronghold in the system. It was also a great training site for military personnel. The unique environment allowed all different sorts of specialty schools to be located there.

Originally, the idea of terraforming Luna had been passed around, but a quick cost-benefit analysis showed it wasn’t viable. Terraforming a planet that already had a workable atmosphere was doable, but Luna wasn’t more than a big rock in space; so they did the next best thing. Giant generators were buried into the ground to project shields around the habitable zones, and all the cities were placed in the lower altitude “seas” across the moon’s surface. Walls were built up on natural or man-made ridges so the shields didn’t interfere with the faultlines of the moon, and thus modern life on Luna was born.

As a result, the military had enclosed, environmentally stable inhabited zones where normal schools, like Harper’s Nursing School could be located. But it also gave them the barren Zero-G wastelands where infantry specialty schools could conduct their training. Coop knew he might find himself back on Luna at some point for additional training, so he was determined to map out the local scene while there.

<Weird.> He remembered thinking when the shuttle descended and had to pass through the Tranquility’s shield.

It went from barren gray nothingness to a temperate paradise once you passed over the tall, thick wall around the perimeter and through the double-layer of shielding. He saw squads of infantry doing maneuvers in full armor on one side, and literally a hundred feet away a pickup game of basketball was going on with guys in t-shirts and shorts. For someone who’d grown up on Earth and been a part-time visitor on Mars, seeing that was a little nerve-racking. So when Mike went off to suck face – and do other things – with Harper, Coop went to the enlisted soldier’s gym in the protective comfort of a building.

Nobody higher than a corporal was there, so as an HI PFC he basically had the run of the place. There were no other heavies present, and a few people congregated around him as he did his workout; sometimes putting up multiple tons on the magnetic resistance. Thankfully, a few of his admirers were of the female persuasion.

“You’re a big one aren’t ya?” A voice asked from behind him as he racked the weights.

“That’s what I’ve been told…oh!” He visibly recoiled as he got a look at the person talking to him.

Unlike the attractive brunette that had been discretely watching him out of the corner of her eye, and who he thought looked ready to come over and talk to him, Coop found himself facing somebody who looked like their face had gotten into a fight with some nanites and lost horribly.

She, at least he thought she was a she, had a crooked nose from one too many bar fights. Her eyes were spaced a little bit close together, and one side of her face looked like it had been hit by a stun baton; that, or she’d recently had a stroke. Either way, it gave her a lopsided expression where only half her mouth worked, which made understanding her already thick accent that much more difficult.

Her PT uniform showed she was a corporal, so Coop tried to recover. “What can I do for you, Corporal?”

“Nothing, Cooper. I just wanted to see if you wanted to make a little extra cash?”

Her knowing his name wasn’t a surprise since it was on his shoulder right below his single chevron and rocker.

“Depends?” He answered noncommittally.

“A few of my contacts back at Mattis told me you like to make a quick buck and have certain tastes.” She smiled, which creeped Coop out more than anything.

But what she said put him off. “Look, I’m flattered…but…I’m not a gigolo…” He started, only to get a hearty laugh from the CPL.

“Boy, you couldn’t handle me.” She wiped a tear from her good eye. “But thanks, I needed a good laugh.”

Now Coop was really confused. He had a taste for women and fine booze, but that was about it.

“I’m talking about your tendency to talk with your fists, Cooper.”

<Ohhh. Wait…How…?>

She saw the question in his eyes and smiled that lopsided smile again.

“I looked you up, Cooper. You’ve got an official reprimand for excessive use of force against a civilian. My little birdie also told me that you instigated a fight and took down a good chunk of a company of grunts over spilled beer and a mouthy LT. So, am I talking to that Mark Cooper or are you some little bitch and I’ve got the wrong person?”

Coop glared at her and got to his feet. He was a solid half a meter taller than her, could probably break her over his knee with little effort, and it didn’t matter that she had two more rough-looking guys behind her.

“Looks like I got the right guy.” She nodded.

Coop didn’t even realize his fists were balled up and shaking.

“Meet me at this address at 20:00. If you come I’ll cut you in for thirty percent. If you don’t, then it’s your loss.” She got up and left.

Just like that Coop wasn’t interesting in working out anymore. He was interested in what the butt-ugly corporal was talking about, what the total would be that his thirty percent would be coming off of, and what he had to do to get it.

<Fortune favors the bold even if curiosity killed the cat.> He made up his mind before he left the gym.

At 20:00 he arrived at a storage warehouse at the ass end of the joint base. He knocked twice on the old-fashioned steel door and a second later it rolled up. CPL Ugly was there waiting for him with the creepy lopsided smile.

“Glad you could join us, Cooper.” She turned to the rest of her small group. “The muscle is here.”

The two other guys, the same ones from the gym, didn’t look happy to see him, but they didn’t argue with the boss. Coop walked into the small space, angling himself to keep everyone in his line of sight as the door fell back down into place.

“What are we doing?” Coop’s gut was telling him to be cautious, and he always trusted his gut in situations like this.

“The job is simple.” The CPL got right down to it. “We’re in the repo business, and there’s a local tough guy who’s delinquent on his payments.”

<That’s pretty vague.> Coop wondered if they were legit, or if they were hired muscle for some local loan shark. After a moment of thought, he concluded it was the latter.

“What do I have to do?” Coop hadn’t heard anything too incriminating. He could still walk if he didn’t like what they were selling. Or, he could fight his way out. But judging by the CPL he was sure he’d take some hits in the process.

“All you have to do is stand there and look big.” The CPL smiled at him. “I’ll do all the talking. Just follow my lead.”

<And be prepared to break skulls if it comes to that.> Coop knew how this all worked. He’d been on the giving and receiving end of these types of visits back in the PHA. They rarely ever ended with kind words.

“How much does it pay?” That was the ultimate deciding factor.

“The target owes twenty-K. We charge our employer ten percent, and you get thirty percent of the profits.”

<Six hundred.> Coop did the mental math.

“Ok, I’m in. Now where’s my gun?”

“Gun?” The CPL feigned shock, but he saw right through it.

“Yeah, gun. Only an idiot would go into this without some firepower.”

The CPL saw she wasn’t going to pull one over on him and pulled a PDW from behind her back.

The personal defense weapon was the weapon authorized for civilian ownership and use. They weren’t supposed to be lethal, but they’d put a person down until the cops arrived; which meant the rounds had a low velocity, and were made of polyplast instead of metal.

<They still hurt like a bitch.> Coop had been hit by one before and didn’t want to think about it. <But that was before I was HI.> As long as the target didn’t have anything more lethal he’d be fine.

“We copacetic?” The CPL raised the eyebrow on the normal side of her face.

“We’re good. Let’s get this done.” He accepted the PDW. If this little side business had a contract, handing over the firearm was the equivalent of signing on the dotted line. They were in it together now.

<Six hundred bucks and I’ll be out of here before the cops or MPs start looking into it closely.>

No one was going to give two shits about a local thug getting smacked around, and that was presuming the guy went to the cops to begin with. Even if the authorities got involved it would take them time to refine their list of suspects. Even if they did suspect Coop, he’d be halfway across the known galaxy before they linked him to anything, and he didn’t intend to get wrapped up in an investigation in the first place. He was smarter than that.

All of that ran through his head as he pulled on a pair of glove and did a quick inspection of the PDW. He ejected the magazine, pulled the bolt back a few times to see if it was well maintained. It was, so he slid the magazine back in, chambered a round, but made sure it was still on safe before sticking it into the pocket of his coat.

An old-fashioned ground car took the four of them from the warehouse to an older, more decrepit section of Tranquility. Scantily clad woman walked the street, rundown businesses lined the main drag, and people who didn’t belong rolled through quickly with their doors locked and their windows up.

It felt like home to Coop.

They parked the car in an alley connected to one of the less decrepit businesses and entered through an open side door. There was a short hallway packed with what looked like costumes before they walked out of an employees only door and into the main section. It was a titty bar in the middle of mudwrestling night.

<The classics never die.> Coop stutter-stepped as he watched two topless women exchange punches in the filthy pit.

Guys with handfuls of money were yelling and betting with their PADs while a giant holo-board kept track of the odds second by second.

“Let’s go.” One of the CPL’s other goons elbowed Coop.

They shouldered aside the patrons and headed straight for another door. Two big guys, but not as big as Coop, blocked the way. Coop didn’t see what happened, but it happened quickly. By the time he caught back up to the CPL both guards were out cold and seated in chairs next to the door. A cursory glance and someone would conclude they were just sleeping on the job.

The CPL didn’t stop, she threw open the door and walked in like she owned the place.

“For fuck’s sake!” The sleezeball behind a desk piled high with cash grabbed for something out of sight.

“Tisk Tisk, Marco.” The CPL had her PDW out and pointed at the man’s head. “Raise your hands slowly or I’ll put one in your eye. Regrowing an eye costs at least twenty grand without coverage. Do you want to lose double tonight?”

“Bitch,” Marco spat back, but raised his hands slowly.

Whatever the case the CPL had a reputation.

“You borrowed ten grand from Gus. That, plus the vig and delinquent payments equals twenty.  We’re here to collect.” The statement was superfluous. Her two goons were already at Marco’s table counting out the money.

The titty bar owner made it easy on them. Everything had already been neatly divided into thousand dollar stacks. They were halfway through throwing the cash into a bag when the door opened and the two guards rushed in.

Whatever the CPL used to take them down they didn’t stay down.

Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing. They flowed through to door and split to either side. Each had their own sector to deal with and their PDWs were held with confidence. They might even be off duty cops or soldiers.

But even with all that they weren’t ready for Coop. He was standing to the right of the doorway. He turned when he heard the door crash open, pivoted, and lashed out with a front kick. The guy moving in Coop’s direction took the kick in the side. There was a momentary look of surprise, replaced by a grimace of pain, as the kick lifted him off the ground and threw him into his partner who was moving in the opposite direction.

The second guy’s PDW went off with a suppressed pop when his partner bowled over him and they both went crashing to the floor. The round missed the owner by about a meter, but you would have thought a bomb went off by the way the man dove away.

<Definitely somebody off duty.> Coop concluded after noticing the updated PDW. They weren’t usually suppressed like that.

He kept up the pressure and rushed the guys as they were still trying to untangle from each other. He was on top of them raining down controlled blows before they could point their PDWs at the new danger.

It took a couple punches, but he knocked both of the guards out cold. Meantime, the CPL hadn’t even moved. “Let’s go, Marco. I don’t have all day.”

The guy got to his feet with a glare. He had looked smug when his guys came rushing to the rescue, but that look had quickly soured.

The CPL’s guys finished gathering up the cash and headed back out the door. The CPL started to back out too, but Coop walked right up to Marco’s desk. He looked at the titty bar owner and then at the still-large pile of cash. He grabbed a fifty off the top of one stack.

“For my inconvenience.” He smiled sweetly before following the CPL out of the room, through the bar area, and back out the side door into the car.

The guy behind the wheel peeled out of the alley. All the evidence remaining of the collection activities was the smell of burnt rubber. Coop’s only regret about it all was that he might have liked to return to the establishment at some point. That was a no go now.

“Here.” The CPL pulled in front of the shitty motel that Coop and Mike were renting a room at.

She handed him six hundred, which he confirmed with a quick count. In exchange he handed back the PDW which he didn’t need after all. He dropped the magazine out the bottom and ejected the round from the chamber before giving it to her. Giving someone you’d just met, who you didn’t totally trust, a loaded weapon was just bad business.

“Don’t spend it all in one place, and don’t deposit it all at once. The bank on post will take any deposit amount, but anything over five hundred triggers an automatic subroutine. Don’t be a smart ass and do four-ninety-nine either. They’ll flag that too. If you’re going to save it, do four-fifty today and the rest tomorrow. That shouldn’t raise MWFAS’ eyebrows.”

“Thanks for the heads up.” Coop didn’t know any of that.

“Thanks for having our backs.” The CPL gestured toward the door. “If you’re ever back in town and want some more entrepreneurial opportunities look me up.” She sent him an encrypted e-mail with her contact information.

“Will do, Corporal.” He closed the door and she left.

He walked back to his room where the “Do Not Disturb” sign was on the door and he heard the distinct sounds of Mike and Harper fucking. That sent him to the hotel bar where he quickly blew a quarter of his cash on getting shit faced.

At some point during his seventh beer his PAD pinged with his orders. He was to report to Bravo Company 2222nd Infantry Battalion stationed in New Lancashire.

Coop was heading to the Quad-Deuce and the Rim.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 65

Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Gwen sat in the command booth of the company VR training center. She watched the screen with interest as Echo Company 132nd Training Battalion engaged in their last VR exercise of their basic training.

<Soon you’ll have to do it for real.>

One of her biggest personal missions, and a mission of the military in general, was to not send someone into combat who wasn’t ready. That’s why they weeded out anyone with potential substance abuse issues on day one. That’s why they put them in isolation for a week to see if they could cope with that type of environment. That’s why they evaluated the recruits’ aggressiveness during fight week. If they didn’t look like they could do what needed to be done then they got held back to develop that warrior mentality, or they got shown the door and were given a swift kick in the ass.

They also made sure the recruits had the mental chops to get the job done. They needed to know how to fix basic things, read a map, and survive in the wilderness without any tech to help them. Being able to do those things would help them get back in the fight. Obviously, they made sure the recruits could shoot straight and knew squad and company level tactics; but the other things were just as important.

After watching, teaching, and evaluating Echo Company through the last few months Gwen could honestly say that they were the best company she’d ever trained.

<And a lot of that has to do with her.>

Gwen watched as Eve Berg, who was serving as the Company Commander for this company level exercise, motivated her soldiers, led from the front, and provided sound tactical leadership under extreme pressure. Seeing the young woman succeeding brought a smile to Gwen’s face. She tried not to play favorites but she was only human.

The scenario the company was immersed in was a tough one. It was a full battle simulation, involving two brigade level units slugging it out on a sparsely populated ice world. The Commonwealth was the defenders in this situation so they had the shields of a Planetary Defense Center to fall back on, but the Blockies had a couple of battlecruisers in orbit to even the odds.

Echo Company was just one company holding the line along a mile-long front, and the scenario was designed to deal with that limited level of command and control. That could always be changed though.

Gwen toyed with the idea for a moment, but discarded it. <That would just be mean.> Killing off the virtual battalion commander and elevating Berg to that level of command probably wouldn’t end well. <Maybe later.> If she kept doing everything right Gwen would have to challenge her more.

The door behind her hissed open and Petty Officer Janney walked in with two coffees. “Just what the doctor ordered.” He placed the steaming cup in front of Gwen.

“Thanks, Chase.” She sipped tentatively at the brown water. It didn’t totally taste like shit.

“How they doin’?” He plopped into the chair next to her and pulled up a dashboard. “Only lost ten percent of the company so far, and they’re ten hours in. That has to be some sort of record.”

The first few hours of the simulation had been about hastily preparing fighting positions, and allocating resources based on orders from higher, but the last four hours had been an unending assault by the enemy.

“It might be.” Gwen pulled up a menu, selected a few options, and then initiated some changes. “Let’s see if this is luck or skill.”

Five minutes later Echo Company’s section of the line was hit by a Blockie charge. Megawatt portable repeater lasers pounded the shield until it nearly failed. Three full squads of light infantry charged the line, while grenades were lobbed to suppress Echo Company until the enemy was almost on top of them.

One of those grenades headed straight for Eve Berg.

<This could be it.> The grenades came out of its arc, got past the swatters and almost detonated right in the young leader’s face. Instead, another soldier tackled her out of the way and took the brunt of the grenades blast on the back of his armor.

Berg survived, rallied her company, and fought back the attempt to break through the Commonwealth lines. Gwen couldn’t help but be impressed.

“Fucking Cooper.” Chase laughed as he pointed to the bio-data of the soldier who’d shielded Berg.

He’d gone from green to yellow with his sacrifice, but he’d still helped fight back the Blockies and got another two confirmed kills. Not bad for a guy whose spleen had been punched full of shrapnel.

“I swear to god that boy would give his left nut if Berg agreed to suck on the right one.”

Gwen laughed at the crude humor; partially because it was funny and partially because she thought it was true. She had a feeling that the day basic was over Cooper and Berg would be fucking like bunnies until they went off to their secondary training.

<Which…> Her PAD pinged with an incoming email.

“That them?” Chase asked, trying to glance over and see what it was.

“Yep, service assignments are in.” Gwen opened up the email and scanned down the list.

“We doing it tonight or tomorrow?”

All the recruits knew the assignments were coming down any day now, and as a rule it wasn’t a good idea to keep them waiting. People tended to get ideas in their heads, and neither instructor wanted any of the recruits to do anything stupid. Every boy and girl in that VR simulation had proven they could be a soldier and had significant resources invested in them. Having them stick their heads in their asses at the last minute was going to be a loss for everyone.

<We’ve already had one fuck up this cycle.> She still had pleasant dreams of Davenport’s chewed up corpse. <We can’t afford another.>

Chase Janney was up for Petty Officer Second Class soon and he didn’t need anything else blemishing his record until then.

“We’ll do it tonight. Another two hours on the simulation, then have them shower, shit, shave and assemble on the first floor.”

“Roger that, Gunney.” Chase smiled.

It was always fun to find out who would be joining their respective branches of service, and the little traditions they’d have to pass on to the new soldiers before they reported to their new units as the Fucking New Guy (FNG).

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

<Why am I nervous?> Coop wondered as he stood shaking slightly.

The whole company had assembled downstairs in their bay. There was sixty-seven packed into a space designed to sleep fifty, but that still left a lot of open room.

<Maybe it’s because we aren’t in formation.>

PO3 Janney had ordered them to huddle up after they’d finished their personal hygiene. Coop had almost opened up his PAD to see if there was a formal definition for “huddle up”. The PO3 and GYSGT liked to test them like that.

His shaking hand reached for his PAD but stopped. <Fucking VR crash.>

The last exercise, which amounted to an epic battle, had gone on for twelve full hours. Coop had been injured multiple times, been shot up twice with medical nanites, and now his brain and body were having a bit of trouble getting back in synch. A warm shower had helped, and seeing Eve’s bouncing tits had helped even more, but he still wasn’t all the way there.

Instead of grabbing his PAD he grabbed his hand with his other hand to get it to stop. <At least we kicked ass.> They’d held out until reinforcements arrived and then led the charge to break through the Blockies’ lines. Eve had been the battalion commander at that point, and she’d put Coop in charge of the company.

He wasn’t sure why, but it might have had something to do with him saving her ass. <Pretty sure she would have kissed me if we hadn’t been wearing armor.> He’d convinced himself that was the case. <And the look she gave me in the shower was definitely not plutonic.> He congratulated himself for the use of the big word and turned his attention back to the front of their gaggle.

PO3 Janney was standing there being surprisingly cool with everyone. He was answering questions about his time in the fleet before getting assigned to the training camp.

“Best job I ever had was without a doubt the door gunner on a Spyder Assault Shuttle.” The PO3 smiled a facial expression that was usually followed by varying levels of pain on the part of the recruits. “Pilots think they’re hot shit sittin’ in their cockpit and launchin’ missiles by pressin’ buttons. But let me tell y’all there is no rush like standing behind a railgun and shootin’ the shit out of somethin’. It makes a SAW feel like a BB gun.”

Mike was taking it all in. As the SAW gunner for second squad, hearing that there was something bigger and badder he could be shooting had grabbed his attention.

“Quiet down everyone.” The GYSGT walked into the room and everyone snapped to parade rest. “At ease and relax, this is all informal tonight.”

“It has to be the branch of service assignments.” Eve appeared at Coop’s shoulder her hair still wet. “This is it.”

Coop was surprised to hear fear in her voice. <You just led hundreds of soldiers to victory. Sure it was a VR victory, but you still kicked ass. How could you not get what you want?>

At the end of fight week the GYSGT and PO3 had directed them to the selections page on their MILNET account. There they could request specific branches, specialties, and even fill out additional service obligations (ADSO) in exchange for getting what they wanted. The instructors had stressed that they were going to be assigned branches and specialties depending on their performance and needs of the service. An ADSO would only be applied if you got what you wanted, but they said to go for it if you really knew what you wanted to do.

Coop didn’t put in an ADSO and didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He expected the military to just put him somewhere, so in lieu of having a plan he did what he normally did: follow Eve’s lead. He peeked at her selections and then copied them. He might have been thinking with his dick a bit at the time, but after what he’d seen today he knew he wanted to go into combat with Eve. He trusted very few people to have his back.

“By now the rumor mill has confirmed I’ve got the service assignments. Some of you have been assigned specialties beyond that, but most of you did not. You’ll get follow on schooling based upon your individual unit’s needs and their budgets.”

“Which means you won’t be able to do shit unless you deploy or you’ve got a few chevrons.” Eve finished the statement.

The GYSGT must have heard because she gave them a hard stare. Eve snapped her mouth shut and her cheeks flushed.

“There’s no need to build the suspense, so let’s get started.” She cleared her throat. “Congratulations, Bart Aaron. It seems you’ve shown the Commonwealth that you’re ready for increased responsibility. Your application to Officer Candidate’s School has been accepted. You’re going to be an officer.”

First squad went crazy as their squad leader got one of the best outcomes a recruit could hope for. The Sergeant’s words back at the Civil Administration Building had echoed through Coop’s head when he’d seen the option to apply to OCS.

<Your leadership abilities suck. In multiple scenarios you wasted resources, mostly to defend or enhance yourself, and ended up fucking everything else up. So you’re not going to be going down the officer track…ever.>

Coop liked to think he’d improved a bit since then, but he still didn’t even consider going for stripes.

The rest of first squad’s assignments weren’t nearly as exciting. They were basic fleet and infantry assignments with one lucky recruit going into an engineering specialty.

Then the GYSGT moved on to second squad.

“Eve Berg,” she announced.

Coop felt Eve grasp his hand and hold on tight. He fought and failed to conceal his grin. <If a woman seeks physical contact with you in times of stress than she’ll seek physical contact with you in other ways too.> It was sound logic in his mind.

“Hmm.” The GYSGT’s forehead crinkled. “Recruit Berg. You are reporting to Ranger School after the completion of Basic Training. Congratulations. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a recruit accepted to Ranger School before.”

“Did you ask for that?” Coop whispered as the GYSGT doubled checked the information.

“It wasn’t even an option.” Eve’s own forehead wrinkled in confusion. Then it slackened in realization. “It was my mother.”

“Mark Cooper.” The GYSGT moved on, and it was Coop’s turn to squeeze Eve’s hand. “Branch designation: Infantry. Specialization: Heavy Infantry. You’re joining my specialty, Cooper. Don’t fuck up.”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!” Coop yelled reflexively.

“Congratulations, Coop.” Eve was smiling brightly, and the sight dazzled Coop.

“You too. Ranger School, that’s pretty kick ass,” he replied.

“Yeah. Remind me of that after I finish the first phase.”

They laughed and smiled at each other, and if they hadn’t been standing in the middle of a bunch of recruits, under the watchful eyes of GYSGT Cunningham and PO3 Janney, he would have kissed her. And he was pretty sure she would have returned the affection.

<Damn.> Coop felt the moment come and go. Then Harper got fleet with a medical specialty and Eve got dragged away by the practically crying girl.

<Well at least Mike got Heavy Infantry too.> Coop thought as the GYSGT rattled off the rest of second squad’s assignments.

<Life could be worse.>

Coop had no idea how terrible life could be until they entered Medical Week.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 63

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“I’m telling you it’s that way.”

“Are you sure? I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to be heading in that direction.”

“You’re both wrong,” Eve finally chimed in. “You’re pointing North, you’re pointing South, and we need to be heading West. Orient your map and let’s continue with the mission.”

Eve, Coop and Harper were huddled underneath a colorful polyplast advertising-canopy that was promoting something using cartoons of ponies and excited schoolgirls. Blockie symbols flashed all around it to complete the illusion that this was a small Blockie city on a newly terraformed world that second squad was tasked with seizing.

The rest of second squad was spread around a four-way intersection in three hundred and sixty degree security. There was at least one M3 pointed down each of the avenues of approach, and two down the most likely vector based upon intelligence and the squad leader’s sense of direction. For this particular squad training exercise, more commonly known as a STX, pronounced “Stick”, the squad leader was Harper.

The still-recovering woman had chosen Eve and Coop as her team leaders, and now they were arguing where they should be going.

“Why the hell did we have to lose visuals?” Harper groaned.

About ten minutes into the STX STRATNET had gone down. TACCOM was still up and running but it was spotty, so second squad all had their helmets off and was communicating the old-fashioned way.

“We need to move.” Eve subtly urged. “We’re supposed to take the objective in less than an hour.”

“Yeah, ok.” Harper nodded. “Everyone let’s move out.” She hissed as quietly as possible and motioned in the direction Eve had stated was West.

To call their target a city was a vast overstatement. The small settlement was an orderly six city blocks of identical polyplast homes with the occasional small business. GYSGT Cunningham and PO3 Janney insisted that most Blockies settlements look like this. They weren’t big on public individuality.

Their target was the administration building at the center of the town. Intelligence stated that another understrength squad guarded the three-story building; which was all the small town needed. A few military personnel, a handful of civilian law enforcement officers, and the anti-crime technology in just about every city in the galaxy led to very little opportunity for crime to get a foothold in the new colony.

But that didn’t matter at the moment. Any civilians there might be were hiding in a collective underground shelter beneath the administration center. Sensors had seen second squad coming and the evacuation was already completed when the town’s automated defenses failed to take down second squad’s ride. Seeing the fireball of bombed out anti-air defenses from the back of a Spyder Assault Shuttle still gave Coop a hard on.

Since they’d hit the ground things had been much less exciting. In fact they were a royal pain in the ass. They’d spent the last two weeks training on the armor and the weapons, getting used to their eccentricities, meeting all the necessary qualifications, and developing the strength needed to operate in them.  If there was one good thing Coop could think about from those last few weeks was that they were getting double-orders of chow to replenish their bodies after working in the suits.

<Fucking things still weighs a ton.> Coop grumbled as he got to his feet and got his team ready.

Second squad started to move out on the road heading West. Eve’s three man team took the left side of the street and Coop’s took the right. Each team’s members were spaced at least ten meters apart and staggered with the other team across the street. Each team member also held areas of responsibility. The front two were responsible for what was directly ahead of them down the street. The middle two were responsible for the opposite rooftops, and the rear two were responsible for the space behind them. More than once during an STX the enemy had snuck up and shot them in the ass.

Eve was the point woman on her team covering the front and Coop was the rear middle man on his team covering the rooftop. Walking in the middle of the teams were Harper and Mike. Harper was in the middle to exercise greater command and control of her squad, and an aspect of that was to deploy the squad’s sole heavy-weapon’s soldier where she needed him.

As the biggest and strongest guy in the squad, Mike had the responsibility to carry the MG300 Squad Automatic Weapon, or just SAW for short. The SAW was a tri-barrel machinegun that fired three millimeter plasma-tipped rounds at five-thousand meters per second, with a maximum effective range of thirty-five hundred meters, at a maximum firing rate of five hundred rounds a minute. The added explosion of the plasma on top of the sheer kinetic punch of the electromagnetically thrown rounds was the biggest weapon the squad could bring to bear, and the next best thing to having heavy infantry on the battlefield. Although the military table of organization and equipment designated one machine gunner per squad, the drill instructors had driven home the point that it didn’t always work that way. And as such, this was the first STX in three iterations that they had a SAW.

So naturally Mike was loving life right now. Even if the thing was a bitch to carry around everywhere.

“Two more blocks up and one block over.” The information was passed back to Coop.

Since they weren’t going to just walk down the colony town’s main street and get shot to shit they were coming in on a parallel street.

They covered the two blocks quickly, and then took a knee for a quick break. They needed all the strength they could summon to assault the objective, and after half an hour running around in the armor they were exhausted.

<They never looked exhausted when they’re driving forward to take a hill or kicking down doors and kicking ass on the holos.> Coop was starting to suspect that the entertainment industry was full of shit.

“Ok here’s the plan.” Harper gathered Coop and Eve after they all hydrated and grabbed a quick snack. “Eve and I are going to take her team and assault down the street here.” She indicated the street just around the corner from where she currently sat. “You’re going to provide cover fire while we get close. Then Mike will take over. When he starts to light the building up, Coop, you’ll take your team another block up then over to the rear of the building. Clean up anyone trying to run for it and then kick down the back door. We’ll meet in the middle and sweep the rest of the building.”

It was a pretty simple plan, and Coop had found out it was best to keep things simple. When things got complicated people got killed, and nothing should be complicated in an eight-man STX.

“Helmets on.” Harper ordered.

She’d ordered them off to avoid giving away their position to the enemy, and also because the garbled chatter was annoying as hell. The garble was still there when it came back on, which was weird. As a rule people didn’t usually broadcast on all channels unless it was an emergency of critical intelligence.

“Eve.” Coop opened up a private channel on the squad net. “Do you know what any of that chatter is?”

There was a moment of silence before the reply. “No, it’s being jammed. That can’t be good.”

“Harper,” Eve’s voice called over the squad net. “We’re getting chatter on all nets. Let’s hold a few minutes and try to clean it up before we assault.”

“We can’t wait,” Harper replied. “We only have five minutes to take the objective.”

“Ok, you’re call,” Eve replied.

And Coop got a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“We go on three: one…two…three!” Harper, Eve and the rest of the team charged out onto the street.

They made it about four steps before the enemy saw them and returned fire. Coop popped out and returned fire. Most of the fire was coming from the windows of the building. He put three rounds into one, but it only cracked. Then he was forced to duck back behind the building as return fire began the chew up the ground he’d been standing on a moment before.

“The windows are armorplast!” Coop yelled.

The armored plastic was strong and would stand up to several direct hits before giving.

Coop changed his stance, so he was kneeling this time, and popped back out to put another three rounds in the window. A chunk, about two-thirds of the total cracked off, and fell to the ground.

Coop withdrew once he saw it falling, but not before he took a round to the side. The Dragonscale armor saw the round coming, angled itself, and successfully deflected the needle-like bullet. But it still knocked Coop right on his ass.

<Motherfuckers!> Adrenaline surged through him as he pulled himself back to his feet.

“Mike, I opened a window for you. Light that fucker up. If anyone can get a grenade in there be my guest!”

“On it!” Olivia, whose M3 had a 40mm grenade launcher attached to the bottom, popped a self-guiding high explosive munition into it, stuck the weapon around the corner and fired.

Through her helmets uplink she could control the grenade’s trajectory. Coop waited for the bang, but all he heard was a momentary high-pitched whine.

“Fuck they’ve got swatters!” Eve’s voice was labored.

<Shit!> The intel they’d received said nothing about the automatic railguns that were designed to swat anything coming into its sphere of influence out of the sky; thus the name swatters.

Coop checked her info under the squad net and saw that it was yellow. She was injured, but still combat capable. Coop’s heart thundered in his chest. He wanted to go grab her and patch her up, but he knew he couldn’t. He was more likely to get his ass shot off than make it to her. His armor’s computer had done some analysis since the shooting started, and it was blatantly obvious that there was a lot more than an undersized squad guarding the administration building.

“Mike, cover fire.” Coop said as calmly as he could. “Bravo team, get ready to haul ass.”

Coop blasted off at a sprint the moment he heard the crash of the plasma rounds exploding against the building.

Rounds sparked all around him as he made the mad dash, but he made it unscathed. Olivia wasn’t as lucky. Her icon on his screen went from green to black in an instant. And she wasn’t the only one. Mike’s went from green to yellow, and then to red, and finally black.

Coop shuddered at the thought of how that happened. Mike went from healthy to injured, but combat capable. Then he went to injured, not combat capable, and finally to dead. If Coop had to guess, Mike got hit, fell, and the enemy punched holes in him until he was dead.

Coop shook his head and pushed on. He didn’t have time to think about it. With Olivia down it was just him and John, and both of them were armed with standard M3s.

“Let’s go.” Coop didn’t stop once they’d made it to cover. He ran the block up, halted briefly to check around the corner, and then started to sprint again to the back of the target.

They were about two hundred yards from the building when the enemy saw them coming. Coop getting knocked on his ass by the first couple rounds saved his life. The rapid fire raked across the front of his armor spinning him to the ground. John wasn’t so lucky. Dozens of rounds focused on him when Coop went down. His armor handled the first few, but him staying on his feet and running for an alley gave them a constant target.

They pounded him until rounds finally got through. Which left Coop all alone, face down in the hard-packed dirt road, and facing down a lot more firepower than he was capable of handling.

<Fuck…fuck…fuck me.> Coop’s mind scrambled for a way out of this. But it didn’t take much brainpower to figure out he was shit out of luck. <I need to get to the alley.> That was his best and only hope.

<Five-round burst, chaff grenade, and run like hell.> That was the plan.

The instructors discouraged using the five-round burst function on the M3 because it was less accurate, but Coop didn’t really care right now. He needed fire superiority. A chaff grenade was what would happen if a smoke, EW, and white phosphorous grenade got together and had a baby. Its job was to hide soldiers from electronic and visual detection while stopping the more explosive types of ordinance. The chaff grenade would explode and block the entire street with its scatter. It would leave the assholes up the street firing blind.

Chaff grenades weren’t commonly distributed to anyone below squad leader, but Coop had been able to con one for this STX. Truthfully, the PO3 would probably yell at him to die instead of use the expensive grenade. But Coop wasn’t going down without a fight.

The armor handled the grenade. A person could throw it too, but that was superfluous. No one wants to stop shooting at someone who is shooting at them to grab a heavy metal sphere off their armor to throw. It was practical to build a launching mechanism into the suit.

“Go!” Coop gave the verbal command and felt a slight jolt as the suit launched the grenade.

He immediately rolled and got to his feet while firing blindly from the hip at the enemy positions. It was a desperate move. The enemy opened up on him even as the chaff grenade went off and hid him from view. Coop’s tactical computer counted fifteen different firing points before a round cut through the ballistic plate protecting his thigh. He crumpled like a sack of bricks. Blood squirted from the arterial wound before his smartcloth tightened forming a tourniquet.

<Yeah, I’m dead.> A medic would be able to fix him with medical nanites, but he didn’t have any, and a quick check at the squad’s vitals showed everyone in a black or red status. Coop was in yellow but not for long.

The enemy continued to fire where they last saw Coop, while Coop crawled toward the alley.

He didn’t make it. Just like John before him the enemy was able to score enough hits that it finally defeated his armor.

***

Coop’s nerves were still on fire as he jolted out of the VR simulation. The rest of second squad was sitting in the machines next to him. Everyone was awake and trying to get over the VR crash.

“Second squad.” The GYSGT walked into the room with a scowl. “It’s time for the after-action review.”

Commonly referred to as an AAR, an after-action review was done after every STX. They went over the mission in its entirety, and then offered positive ‘sustains’ about the leadership’s handling of the mission and negative ‘improves’.

“Harper.” The GYSGT turned her attention on the mission’s leader. “After the AAR we’re going to do corrective training and discuss why it is not a good idea to remove your helmets in a combat zone because someone might be trying to tell you vital information. Like, for instance, that your objective had been reinforced by another two squads of infantry.”

Harper blushed deep red and suddenly found her feet very interesting.

Everyone knew “corrective training” meant that Harper would be running laps in that armor. Anyone present would take a VR crash over that any day of the week.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 50

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop had a love-hate relationship with fight week.

The love part came during the daily twelve hour training. He loved learning how to really fight; not the PHA alleyway fighting of two gangs, or fighting off a mugger in a tower’s stairwell. He loved learning real techniques and combinations. He enjoyed learning the triangle choke Eve had defeated him with the first day. He’d learned how to lock and break an opponent’s joints if necessary, and he could even strangle a person with their own smartcloth uniform if need be.

Even better, despite the truth behind Staff Sergeant Cunningham’s words that first day, Coop really did have a knack for it. He wasn’t as good as Eve or any other recruit who’d had prior combat training; but of those who hadn’t, he was among the best.

Those were the parts he loved. The part he hated was the maze. His hate for the maze started within the first ten minutes of their first night in it. Coop, and most of second squad, had gotten the shit kicked out of it by a group of better trained recruits. Coop had his shoulder dislocated, a good number of bruises to various parts of his body, and he took a nasty elbow to the forehead. Before the first night in the maze he had no idea that a human being’s elbow could cut skin like that.

That first night taught him a solid tactic: break the skin on a person’s forehead and they’d have blood trickling into their eyes for the rest of the fight. He’d learned that lesson the hard way.

The brutality and no-holds-bar mentality of the maze was only a small part of why he disliked it. The biggest reason was because it didn’t allow for even a partial night’s sleep for an entire week. At least half the squad was always on alert while the second half cat-napped for an hour or two. Then they’d switch or get suddenly woken up by an attack.

Coop had never known true exhaustion until near the end of fight week. And by that time the company had lost another seven recruits. Coop didn’t know it until after the first few nights in the maze, but the instructors saw and monitored everything. If you didn’t show an aggressive spirit then you were usually recycled into a later class to redo the week. If you were a straight up bitch then the instructors reserved the right to give you the boot. You never knew which, since recruits were simply called to the side of the formation in the morning and never seen again.

Thankfully, second squad didn’t lose a single person.

“Line up. You know the drill.” The SSG was at the front of the formation on Sunday night. Or at least Coop thought it was Sunday. You had trouble keeping track of time when you were seriously sleep deprived. “I don’t need to tell you what is expected of you. Get in there and do your jobs, recruits.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” They all yelled back as the door to the maze opened and they flooded in.

Instead of trying to divert from the main group immediately like on the first night, second squad charged forward with the rest of the company. Coop’s eyes scanned left and right while his ears searched for any sounds of other approaching recruits. It was difficult as the mass of Echo Company charged forward, but the echoing of footsteps in the maze was usually a good tactic to see if someone was coming.

Either way, Coop and the lead elements of Echo Company ran face first into a smaller group of recruits at the first intersection in the hallway.

The other recruits were caught completely by surprise and hesitated; which told Coop they were early in the week. Hesitation got beat out of you quick in the maze. Coop’s right cross shot out and caught the nearest enemy in the face. The guy stumbled back, but he was strong and wasn’t going down from a single shot. He countered with his own punch. Coop blocked it with his own arm, thrusting it straight out, and subsequently wrapping it around the other recruits still extended arm.

Coop was taller than his opponent by a good bit, so he used that to his advantage. He jerked up roughly, causing a grunt of pain from the recruit whose arm he had securely restrained. The other recruit countered by throwing a second punch, which Coop deflected in the same way. Now he had both of the other recruit’s arms secured. This would be the point in the fight where old-Coop head-butted the guy, but new-Coop knew better. You were more likely to hurt yourself as much as the enemy if you head-butted them. At the very least you were going to do some damage, and this was just the beginning of the night. Coop wasn’t willing to do that much damage to himself with a lot of fighting still ahead of him.

So instead he brought his foot up and stomped down as hard as he could on the other recruit’s instep. The tactic wasn’t meant to really hurt the other recruit, but it was enough to distract him so Coop could set up his next move. He released one of the arms, repositioned himself, gripped the remaining arm with two hands, rotated his body, and threw the other recruit over his shoulder. The enemy’s shoulder might have popped during the throw, but Coop didn’t care. While the guy was down on the ground, Coop wound up and kicked the man in the face like he was kicking a field goal. At the very least the man’s jaw was broken, he’d need some teeth replaced, and he was out cold.

<Gotta neutralize the threat.> Coop didn’t feel bad for fucking up the guy’s face. That was what the maze was all about.

“Second squad on me,” Eve called.

By the time Coop finished with his opponent the rest of the company had taken down those unlucky recruits who’d crossed their path. The soft hums of robotic medbots on their grav-sleds signaled they were already in route to help the downed recruits. That meant their injuries weren’t life threatening, but still needed treatment. If they were serious enough, medics would also appear to render aid and remove them from the maze. For lesser injuries, every recruit carried a single syringe of standard medical nanites, which would also do for a pinch in an emergency. Upon instruction from their evaluators they could administer those nanites to anyone.

Coop had been shot full of the healing biomechanical devices every night since they started spending time in the maze. Despite how much he hated being in it, Coop always found himself at the center of where the action was taking place.

Coop walked over the where Eve was surrounded by the rest of the squad. Olivia had the beginnings of a shiner on her face, and Mike had a split lip that Harper was fussing over. Everyone else looked unscathed.

“Now that everyone is here,” she gave Coop and annoyed looked, “we’re going to make for the fringe and lay low for a bit.

Being in a fight right off the bat freed them up for a bit of sleep, and they were all exhausted.

“Lead on fearless leader,” Coop grinned at the eye roll Eve gave him.

Things with Eve had been. . .weird wasn’t the best way to describe it, but things were definitely off.  Coop never knew where he stood with her. They’d cuddled up in the maze on multiple occasions, but in the morning, or when they were suddenly attacked by more recruits, she made it seem like nothing had ever happened. One second she seemed totally ready to get down, and the next she shunned him. It was very confusing.

<Women.>

They only got in one minor scuffle on the way to the fringe, a space on the edge of the maze that was filled with small rooms. These rooms didn’t have any doors, just door-like openings, which was why half the squad had to stay awake at all times. Thankfully, groups of recruits tended to be less blood-thirsty in the area. People came here to try and grab a few hours of shut-eye or lick their wounds after fighting.

Eve found an empty room, not more than five meters by five meters for the squad to hold up in. The light in the maze was low, so it didn’t travel much past the door opening, leaving the majority of the room shrouded in darkness. It didn’t matter to the instructors, whose camera undoubtedly had IR and night vision optics, but it was great concealment against other recruits that just happened to walk by. There would only be a problem if those recruits wanted to take the room for themselves.

“Davenport, Harper, Olivia, and John are on first watch. Everyone else try and get some sleep. I’m pretty sure this is our last night in this place, and I’m not worried about anyone getting recycled at this point. With all the ass we’ve kicked they should be begging us to stay,” Eve encouraged.

That got a laugh from Coop and a few other members of the squad.

“Why am I on first watch?” Davenport bitched, ruining the motivational speech.

“Shut up,” Mike grumbled as he settled in.

“Yeah, you sound like a baby whining for his momma’s tit.”  Coop added. He usually didn’t care what watch he got, but this was a chance for him and Eve to get some semi-alone time together.

He walked over and lay down beside her. When she didn’t complain he inched closer. When she didn’t complain about that he rolled to his side and draped an arm around her. It was the odd mating ritual they’d settled into. Coop’s next move would have been to kiss her neck, but he was pretty sure he’d get a knife between his ribs if he tried; so he stuck to cuddling.

Anyone who wasn’t on watch fell asleep pretty quickly. It was essential for a recruit to be able to fall asleep fast and in any location. Sleep was a valuable commodity that needed to be taken advantage of whenever possible, but never overindulged. If you slept too deep in the maze you were guaranteeing you woke up in the infirmary with a cracked skull.

Coop had learned that lesson the hard way too.

So when Coop heard the grunts and felt the disturbance vibrate through the ground he instantly woke from his light sleep. Eve was up too, and her eyes scanning the room for threats. Neither of them moved.

After a few seconds they didn’t find any.

“What’s that sound?” Coop whispered. The sound was coming from the other side of the room.

“John,” Eve whispered. They didn’t want to give away their position, and in such a small room John should have been able to hear her.

The grunting stopped, and everything went silent

But there was no reply from John.

A few seconds later the noise resumed.

Slowly Coop rolled over, pulled his arm off Eve and crawled over to John. <Eve’s going to kick your ass if you fell asleep on duty.>

Eve took things like that very seriously.  

Coop found John leaned up against the wall breathing deeply. “John,” he whispered, shoving his squad mate gently. Coop wanted to try and cover for John as much as possible. Coop liked the guy, and he’d been on the receiving end of Eve’s wrath enough that he wanted to spare John the unpleasantness if he could.

It would also mean that John owed him one.

But even after a few shoves John didn’t wake up.

And that’s when Coop heard the grunting morph into a muffled, strangled scream.

<What the hell?> Coop’s first instinct was ambush, but there was no one else but the squad in the room.

Another moment passed with nothing but the strange noise and then a roar cut through the silence of the maze. “WHAT THE FUCK!” Eve’s voice seemed to echo through every nook and cranny of the building.

Coop spun around just in time to see Eve take a wind-up step before kicking hard into a dark corner of the room. Her foot made contact with a loud thump, which was quickly followed by a curse as one dark shape fell backward into the wall.

Coop took a few steps forward to cover Eve. She was in view of the opening now, and a target for anyone to attack through it. His adrenaline started to pump, his vision focused, and he balled his hands into fists ready to throw down with the first unlucky son-of-a-bitch that stepped through the door.

But when he got closer, and was able to see the scene in the dark corner more clearly, he forgot about anything that was going on outside this small room.

Face first on the floor and slowly curling into the fetal position was Harper. Her smartcloth CMUs had been ripped off from the waist down, and she was in a position Coop had envisioned putting Eve in every day since he met her. Coop didn’t look any farther than that, he knew what had happened.

He’d grown up in the PHA. He’d seen the look of betrayal, violation, and terror on a woman’s face before. He’d almost seen that look on Hailey’s face before he’d stepped into a dark alley several years ago. But that was the PHA. This was a military training center for the most powerful military in the galaxy. Seeing the two connected in such a way shook Coop down to his core.

He turned his attention on the second person. Sitting against the wall and struggling to get back to his feet, with his uniform around his ankles, and a hard on, was Davenport. The large recruit was sneering at Eve.

“Stay down, Davenport.” Eve warned in the most threatening voice Coop had ever heard from her.

It wasn’t anger that scared him; it was the total absence of emotion. Eve sounded robotic, devoid of humanity. It was the exact opposite of Coop’s burning rage that was barely being contained beneath the surface. If Eve wasn’t between him and Davenport, Coop probably would have tried to rip the guy’s throat out. Not only because of what he’d been doing, but because he’d been doing it to Harper. The smaller woman was the closest thing Coop had ever had to an inappropriate little sister.

Of course, Davenport didn’t listen.

“Listen you stupid stuck up bitch. If you say…” Davenport didn’t get to finish.

It was clear he was trying to get to his feet under himself and pull his pants up, but Eve wasn’t fucking around. Just like the heel stomp Coop had delivered to the recruit earlier, Eve did that same. But this time with Davenport’s nuts.

It made an odd squishing noise as Eve’s foot pulverized Davenport’s balls. But that sound was quickly drowned out by the blood-curtailing scream from the man’s throat. Any resistance coming from Davenport vanished in the blink of an eye. The only thing the guy could do was scream and cry before slipping into shock. He couldn’t even move his hands to cover the ruined remains of his manhood.

“Watch him, Coop,” Eve ordered.

Coop did exactly what he was told without a peep. He was in a little bit of shock from the ruthlessness of his squad leader, and Eve was still in ball-crusher mode. He did not want to get in her way.

“Harper?” Eve knelt down next to the raped recruit and softly spoke her name.

All the emotion Eve seemed to be holding back leaked out in those two syllables.

“Shhh…it’s ok, you’re safe now.” Eve gently placed her hand on Harper’s shoulder, but Harper flinched away at the contact. Eve didn’t try to touch her again but she stayed close, constantly consoling the now sobbing woman.

Coop could hear the hum of the medical bots approaching, along with the pounding of feet; which meant the instructors knew.

<How the fuck couldn’t they have known this was happening!> Coop’s fists were still clenched and shaking at his side.

Still, Coop stayed exactly where he was; guarding the barely conscious rapist.

“Everyone FREEZE!” SSG Cunningham burst through the opening, her head almost smacking the top.

Coop followed the order.

“This training iteration is over. You all will follow me out of here immediately.” SSG Cunningham took one quick look around the scene. “Leave Davenport for the medics and the MPs.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” The now fully awake second squad replied before following her out of the maze.

Mike hesitated for a moment before being the last one to exit.

Coop sincerely hoped Mike never saw Davenport again, because if the former Rat did there was no doubt in Coop’s mind Mike would kill that sack of shit.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 48

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.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 43

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“What the fuck’s the point of all this?” Coop growled as he deposited the dry branches in a small pile a safe distance away from the growing fire.

“What’s up with you, Mr. McPouty-Face?” Harper teased from the opposite side of the fire.

“I’m not pouting,” Coop argued. “I just don’t see the benefit of this.”

“Coop’s pouting!” Harper ignored his response and yelled to the rest of the group.

“Coop is always pouting.” Eve slid away from the flames and smiled. “If he can’t find something to bitch at then something is terribly terribly wrong.”

“I’m not that bad,” Coop crossed his arms defensively. “I think I’ve got some pretty valid complaints.”

“Too bad the Staff Sergeant and Petty Officer don’t give a flying fuck about your ‘valid’ complaints.”

Second squad laughed, and Coop couldn’t help but laugh with them. Night was falling on their last day of the wilderness week. The training that had started with them being ambushed by an entire separate company, which was a lot farther along in their training, would come to an end tomorrow morning; and Coop couldn’t be happier.

They’d spent the last week out in the field, sleeping on the ground, and doing tasks that seemed pointless. Or at least Coop saw them as pointless.

“The point of all this is simple,” Eve stated, addressing his original question. “What have we done this week?”

<What have we done?> It was a broad question Coop had to think about.

“We did some land nav, learned how to build shelters, how to dig, how to build fires, and what could and couldn’t be eaten out here. We ran the Gauntlet twice, and we’ve spent the last twenty-four hours doing our final test. Get from point A to point B without dying.” The last sentence was a direct quote from PO3 Janney.

There was more, but those were the highlights.

“Correct to a point.” Eve conceded. “Now let’s think about it in terms of the military, which you need to remember you’re in now. I’ll be the first to admit that not everything the military does has a logical purpose, but Basic training is an exception to that. The curriculum is specifically designed to develop the next generation of warriors. Keep that in mind, Coop.”

Coop did keep that in mind, and endured Eve’s constant reminders.

“So the first thing we did was land nav. We’ve been looking at maps and plotting points for over a week and now was our chance to do real training with that knowledge. It is fine to be able to identify a hill, valley, ridge, saddle, or depression on a topographical holo; but it’s another thing entirely to see one in reality and negotiate how to overcome it and still make it to your objective.”

<But that’s why we have GPS.> Coop didn’t interrupt though.

“Next we learned how to build shelters, including how to dig. Which is a huge mischaracterization of that training,” Eve frowned at Coop. “What we did was learn the best way to make a defensive position. Digging a foxhole or a system of trenches might just be digging now, but it will be home sweet home when Blockies start breaking through a shield wall and storming our positions.”

A haunting look crept onto Eve’s face, but she shook her head and it was gone. But Coop had seen it.

“Next we learned how to build a fire because building a fire is a fucking necessity. If you can’t do what our ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago you might as well go off yourself because you’re a waste of space.” Eve snapped harshly.

“Geez, ok,” Coop held up his hands defensively.

“And we learned what we can and can’t eat from the wild because it’s better than eating MREs for weeks on end, and that’s if we’re lucky enough to have MREs.”

In Coop’s opinion, being lucky enough to have MREs was an oxymoron. The prepackaged Meals Ready to Eat were the military’s version of the BSA rations Coop used to get back in the PHA. They tasted like ass and were better used as a weapon to bludgeon the enemy to death with, because the “pre” part in prepackaged alluded to a production date before anyone in second squad was born. On top of the inedible nature of the food, if you were able to get it down it stopped you up like someone had poured concrete into your intestines.

Coop hadn’t taken a shit in three days.

“Lastly we have our test, which as you all know is a culmination of everything we’ve learned this week.” Eve pointed at the edge of the clearing they were camping in, the fire burning in front of them, and the small pile of berries in a small divot of fabric. “We’ve had to hike twenty klicks over the mountain and through the woods, without food, water, or shelter. We’ve had to survive on our own. That’s the fucking point of this week. It’s as much a motivational boost as it is important training.”

“But how is it important training?” Coop couldn’t help but ask. “Sure I don’t want to eat MRE’s but we’ll have them. I saw them cart a whole air-truck of them out here. Land nav is fun. I mean who doesn’t like walking around in the woods trying to find an orange triangle in the middle of the night. But we have GPS systems for a reason, and they’re on our PADs so we’ll always be able to access them.” Coop felt like he was on a roll, and a few other members of the squad were nodding.

“Who needs to rub two sticks together to make fire, anyone ever heard of a lighter?” He got a couple of chuckles for that remark, but not from Eve.

Eve just shook her head.

“You’ve really got a thick skull you know that Coop.”

Coop didn’t know whether to take that as an insult or a compliment.

“You’ve been here for two weeks and you haven’t seen the pattern yet.” Eve popped a berry in her mouth with a sad smile.

“What pattern? The pattern of us doing pointless shit that our tech could do in a quarter of the time and better than we ever could?”

“Exactly!” The ferociousness of Eve’s response caused Coop to lean back away from her.

“We’re doing the stuff that our tech would usually do.” Eve said it expectantly, like she assumed he would connect the dots.

She frowned when he didn’t.

“You’ve got a pretty face but not much going on between the ears.” She shook her head.

All Coop heard was that she thought he was pretty.

“Let me lay it out for you and anyone else who is questioning the training.” The setting sun and the fire cast serious shadows around Eve.

“We are training on this shit because tech can be broken. What if an EMP blast burns out your PDA? What if your armor takes so much damage it’s useless? What if that air-truck bringing in the MREs gets hit by an artillery round? Now you’re sitting with no gear, no food, and no way to complete your mission.”

<Shit.> Coop hadn’t thought about that, and judging by the look on Eve’s face she clearly thought he should have.

“Tech can fail and it will fail; it’s Murphy’s Law. And you will die if you’re not ready for it.” The haunted look was back and then it vanished again.

“Murphy’s Law?” Emma asked. It was probably better it was her and not Coop.

“It was a statement made by a guy pre-Expansion, but it has proven true time and time again. He said whatever can go wrong will go wrong. So you can’t plan for that MRE air-truck, or that all your tech is going to work flawlessly throughout a battle. We need to plan for it to go wrong, and that is what the early training curriculum is all about. They’re teaching us what to do if everything goes to shit before they give us the fancy gear, because the fancy gear can fail. What we all need to rely on is ourselves and our team. That’s the point of all of this.” Eve waved around her.

Everyone was quiet for several seconds thinking about what their squad leader had said.

“Well…I guess that makes sense.” Coop broke the silence.

Eve looked at him and then laughed. “I’m glad you approve, Coop.”

“You know me,” he grinned back, getting a snort from the squad leader.

With the argument in the past, and it getting late, second squad set up their watch schedule and started to settle in for the night. Their fart sacks had been left behind as part of the mission parameters for the test, so people huddled together for warmth.

Coop looked across the fire at Mike and Harper. The petite female was completely enveloped by the much larger former Rat, and there was the occasional soft giggle. Coop tuned them out. His blue balls were bad enough already.

Coop settled in next to Eve, lying on his back and looking up at the stars. He didn’t pull out his PDA and chart what was up there tonight; which had become a nightly watch time-passer for him. He just laid there thinking.

Thinking never did him any good.

<Fuck it.>

Coop rolled to his side, closed the distance, and draped his arm over Eve. Then he held his breath. Eve didn’t stiffen, pull his arm off, or elbow him in the ribs; all of which he took as a good sign. She couldn’t be asleep already, which meant she knew he was spooning with her and she was ok with it.

<Fuck yeah!> He couldn’t help but get excited.

“If I feel anything poking into my back it better be a stick or I’m going to cut it off.” Eve stated bluntly.

If it was any other woman Coop would have laughed it off, but he’d already seen the wicked-looking duro-steel knife she kept in her pocket. She’d used it to sharpen a stick that had skewered a rabbit which had been the only source of protein the squad had eaten all day.

So Coop quickly got control of himself. The last thing he wanted was to get his dick cut off before he got to do more than cuddle with his amazingly hot squad leader.

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