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The Weapon: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Saturday, January 8, 2005 04:14 EST



    Special Warfare Candidate Training is organized hell. Nothing I'd read or been told could have prepared me for the reality. The reception was cordial enough, but the first morning began not at 2 divs, but at 1:50. Let me convert that-we'd been awake until midnight because we were young and stupid, and woke up four hours later instead of five and a half. It was like recruit training all over again, only more so. After all, they knew just how much punishment we could soak up, and they started there and got tougher.

    It hardly seemed worth the pay raise to E-3, Trooper. We would be considered Troopers until we qualified as Blazers or Operatives. Still, it was a raise, it was a qualification of sorts, and it would have to do. To take my mind off the pain, I calculated time left as a percentage and as seconds, breaths, and heartbeats, and the money I'd make per each. It really didn't seem worth it.

    Physical conditioning was a huge part of our early training. It was done both out of necessity-it's a job requirement to be strong, and to both find out if we had the mindset to stick with the program through pain and to teach us to deal with discomfort.

    I'll bet most readers think they're in pretty good shape. My guess is, if you're a surface dweller on Earth or another urbanized planet and reading this, you can't bench press more than 20 kilograms. Want to know how much I can push?

    180. And I can do them in Grainne's or Novaja Rossia's gravity. Deni, being female, has less upper body strength. She can only do 100. We do 150 reps every day. I leg press 500 kilos. That leaves you with the myth of physical strength and mental ability being incompatible. Please continue to think that; it's a weapon we can use that we don't have to carry with us.

    Do you want to know how that type of prowess is achieved? It's very simple. You have to want it. Hurt for 2000 seconds every morning, and you'll be this strong within a year or two. That's all it takes. Or is that bowl of pseudofood you're munching while you read more important to you?

    Guess we can rule out you having more willpower than I, then can't we?

    Of course, we aren't superhuman. A lot of people would like us to be, so they can feel comfortable not being on par with us. The reality is, we are mortal humans, simply at the far end of the curve. When we show up and kick your ass up around your shoulders, it means that in the evolutionary state of existence, we're better. If that bothers you, tough. I proved myself to Senior Sergeant Yeoh. I didn't have to prove anything to anyone else then. I don't now. My record speaks for itself.

    I'll tell you one thing: I don't ever want to meet Sergeant Yeoh's grandmother. That first day, I must have done a thousand pushups, and he kept screaming in my ear from six centimeters that his grandmother could do better than that. She must be the vac-sled bitch of the century, and her virility clearly explained his testosterone overdose.

    He wasn't the worst. The worst was Sergeant Irina Aleksandrovna Belinitsky, immigrant from Novaja Rossia. She was decent looking, but with huge boobs three sizes too large for the rest of her leopard-lean, muscled body. To describe her in one word, she was a sadistic bitch. And that's what we called her when she couldn't hear: "The Bitch." She was a runner. How she could run as far as she did without stopping still amazes me.

    I was matched up with Trooper Tom Parker as buddy. Tom was…a character. He was blatantly bisexual and flaunted it as jokes. He loved to talk about "ze revolooooshun!" that was coming someday. Brash, loud and not much of a runner. But he could do pushups. I can run, I just hate it. I could do pushups, too. He'd keep me company be reciting the manual for the M-5 Weapon, Soldiers, Individual, from memory, page after page. "Disassembly is accomplished by: One: unloading the weapon. Two: squeezing the trigger to disengage the firing mechanism. Three: rotating the takedown lever down and to the rear. Four: Withdrawing the takedown lever…"



    Pushups. Situps. Pullups. Leglifts. Jumps and jerks and running. I thought it would never stop. Then I found out that they'd lied to us. No one was allowed to quit. If you wanted to quit, you had to race for this bell at the admin building and ring it. If you moved toward it, the instructors would beat the snot out of you. All you had to do to quit was suffer worse pain than we already had. It was unfair, I was pissed off, and I started screaming at one of the instructors-Corporal Vic Daniels-about how I'd have his ass in detention. He laughed in my face, punched me in the cheek and hit me in the guts so hard I puked. While I was puking he shoved me back into my slot in formation. The Training Center commander, Captain Ntanga, just watched from the deck of his office and made no move to interfere. So that's how it was to be played.

    "Is it time yet for ze Revolooooshun?" Tom asked.

    "I'm beginning to think so," I gasped, swallowing bile.

    We actually got a hot evening meal, a hot shower, and two divs of sleep. The next morning, they gave us a friendly lecture, and I decided it had been a test. I was right. And wrong.

    After breakfast, we got screwed by a three meter dick. I'm not joking. They dragged up this three meter long penis carved from a thick bluemaple trunk and told us it went everywhere we did for the duration. We were required to heave it onto our shoulders and run with it. Anytime we weren't doing something else, we were carrying the dick. It hurt the collar bones, it splintered into our arms and ears and abraded the skin over the bones. It made our weapons bang into our shoulders and spines. Sometimes, the instructors would ride atop it. Belinitsky would crack jokes while she did so, that might have been funny under normal circumstances. Tom cracked a few jokes back, and we all got dropped for pushups. If anyone dropped out for exhaustion or injury, that just left the rest of us with more to carry. We started at Iorise, carried it through our calisthenics and around an obstacle course from hell, took shifts holding it while eating, then carried it to class. We tumbled it end over end on runs, did pushups and situps by squad with it lying across our chests or spines. There's not a millimeter of that log I don't remember. Though it may have changed; seeing scars left by the last victims, we spent every moment we could unobtrusively picking splinters off it with our fingernails. It couldn't have reduced the mass much, but it was the only way we had of fighting back, so we did it.

    Class wouldn't start until everyone was present at the chosen location. Each squad had its own dick, and sometimes the riding instructor would beat on us. Whichever team arrived last had to do pushups in mud while being beaten until someone collapsed or threw up. All our comms had clear waterproof covers, because we were all filthy, all the time. We took class sitting on logs while the instructors used a comm and screen under an awning to protect it from the weather. Note that I didn't say it protected us from the weather. We got Iolight, rain, a freak snowshower, hail, birdshit and everything else that came from above. We'd sit there, burning and blistering, teeth-chattering numb and frozen stiff, pounded senseless by drops, straining to hear the voice of an instructor who more than likely was sitting in a lounge chair sipping a soda and munching cookies, neither of which we could have. Sometimes they'd grill lunch for themselves, upwind of us. The aroma of marinated venison or turkey would waft down over us. Bastards. There is worse torture than mere pain. I learned that then.

    Beyond the bruises, splinters, scrapes, UV burn from Iota, bugbites, feet blistered and ground into sausage and aching, oxygen-starved muscles was the cold. Water has a better thermal transfer rate than air, and so sucks the heat right out of you. That's true of "warm" water in the 30 degree range. "Cold" water in the 20 degree range is brutal. Mirror Lake is fed by mountain streams, and is in a deep fault valley. It averaged 5-10 degrees, just barely above freezing. A few seconds in it gave me a pounding headache from the chill effect on my ears and neck. My muscles shrank up even tighter than my gonads, and I was so tooth-rattling numb I could barely stand. Then the coughing started. Skinny runts like me have no insulation to slow the effect.

    We found a way to alleviate that, sort of. Body heat. Someone reacting to the chill would pee as they swam. The next person would feel the slight warmth, and they'd pee. By the time twenty people had done so, there was a substantial volume of water that was three to five degrees warmer. It was a few seconds, but it was relief from the vampiric cold for those few seconds. Tom would be just behind me, and I'd say, "Ahhh!" when I hit the spot.

    "Why, thank you… Ken. I look forward… so much… to you peeing… on me every morning."

    "I could… do it late… at night in… your rack," I offered.

    "I have a… better way to keep… warm," he replied. "Maybe you… and that lovely redhead… what's her name?"

    "Trooper… Denise Harlett." It was seriously hard to breathe while swimming and talking, but any chat was a welcome diversion.

    "Yes… you two could… join me in my rack… and… "

    "Only if… I can sell… tickets."

    "See, I was… going to have you… be behind me… so I wouldn't have… to look at your face." he said. We went on like that whenever we had enough breath to spare. I have no idea how much of it was serious, or if it was all persona. But it was bizarrely amusing, now that I think back. Tom's dead now. He was annoying and strange, but a first-class troop. His griping was always cheerful, and he always got the task done. I miss him.



    We'd spend all day splashing along the shoreline, our sand-filled uniforms rasping our skin off and wicking away heat as they dried, only to be soaked again. If you want an idea what it was like, fill a tub with cold water and add about ten trays of ice. Then lie in it for most of a day, fully clothed, getting out periodically to step into a walk-in cooler. Refresh the ice as needed. Peel out of the clothes and sandpaper the joints of your legs, behind your knees, anywhere skin meets skin, and rub dirt into the abrasions. Put the wet clothes back on, run a few kilometers with rocks in your boots then get back in the tub. Now, imagine that goes on all day, every day, for weeks.

    Why did we stick with it? Probably because we were ornery little bastards who took personal offense to the often-stated theory that we were all geeks who couldn't do it and would run home crying to our mommies and daddies. They made us mean and determined, and we were going to go through hell just to prove these assholes wrong. Which was, of course, exactly what they wanted. You do this because you have something to prove to yourself. No one else will notice.

    Then we hit Week Three.

    Sorry. Did I capitalize that? I meant WEEK THREE!!!

    I don't remember much of week three. I don't want to. Week three was the first of several plateaus we had to cross. They woke us at one div (2.8 hours after midnight), and dragged us out in the cold rain wearing only our shirts and shorts and boots. We formed squares, linked legs over shoulders and did tabletop pushups until we collapsed. They beat us around to be sure we really had collapsed, then they made us throw our dicks over our shoulders and run. We ran until people dropped out and fainted and puked to more beatings, then we ran some more. That extra 25 kilos of dick per person became 30, then 35, then 40 as bodies fell out. Eventually, someone was bound to get squashed as it fell, and I was determined to make sure it wasn't me.

    Finally, we dropped our dicks and did our calisthenics to warm up for exercise. While we did them, they doused us with a fire hose. It not only stings like hell in the face, it makes it impossible to breathe. If we turned our heads, we got slapped. If we ducked, we got kicked. We dealt with it, did our 300 pushups, 300 sit-ups, 50 pull-ups, our ten kilometer run, and the obstacle course. Then they brought us back and told us we'd be exercising until breakfast.

    Breakfast was at noon. Belinitsky tossed a box of crackers into the mud in front of a group of us and the fight started. I hurt three people getting to them. I think Deni was one of those. Screw her if she couldn't hack it. I managed one pack of about ten crackers from the box, and had lacerations and bruises all over from the fight. Tom and I shared what we had, and handed a couple of spares over to the others in our squad, so Deni got hers anyway. It was very confused.

    That afternoon, I felt the twinges that told me my lower back was about to go. I asked Yeoh for sick call and he nodded. A hand wave brought a medic over, who did a quick scan, asked me about it, then told me, "It's superficial. It isn't actually a permanent danger or incapacitating. You can deal with it, it's just pain." I expressed my own obscene opinion of what pain was. I don't know if you've ever had nerve injuries in your lumbar region, but they hurt like a dogfucker, and they are incapacitating. I found out you can deal with the pain, if you are desperate enough. It's no harder than holding still while someone stabs you repeatedly with a red hot needle.

    The rest of the week was a daze. We ran, jumped, hauled weights, swam across one arm of Mirror Lake (which, I remind you, is fed by frigid mountain streams) that was more than five kilometers wide at that point, hauling a heavy rock in one hand with our weapons slung across our backs and fighting off instructors in boats who thought it was the height of humor to run an inflatable boat over us to hold us under. The swimming was the worst. I could swim for whole kilometers. I'd been on the school team. Ever tried it in frigid, choppy water? It curls you into a gasping, struggling ball. The bottom is too deep to touch. Clothes, weapon and a rock weigh you down. I was absolutely terrified, and more so after I watched someone else sink from exhaustion. They brought him up gasping and choking. Eventually. It had to be a hundred seconds or more they just watched the water, waiting to see if he would learn how to breathe it. They dosed him with oxygen and tossed him back in like a too-small fish. Tom kept cracking jokes to encourage me, about what he'd do with my corpse.

    "You can... do me if... you get them to stop," I told him. I think I meant it.

    So the crazy son of a bitch asked them.

    Three thousand pushups for us both later…

    We were taunted by civilian gawkers from town, crawled across hot, sharp rocks, got beaten, abused, flogged, ate perhaps once a day-and at the little we were given and the metabolic rate we were running, that was not enough-and slept perhaps ten divs total (that's 28 hours in a 280 plus hour week). The "sleep" was hardly worth it, because we were put on watch. The watch duration was 100 seconds. After 100 seconds on watch, the first person thus assigned grabbed the second and formally…



    …was relieved. "TROOPER, I RELIEVE YOU!" and "TROOPER, I STAND RELIEVED!" shouted every 100 seconds is not conducive to sleep. Even worse is that it was an alphabetical rotation, so you had to try to sleep on your back so you could be identified, assuming your shirt was clean enough they could read your name. When you were on watch, you were on a dead run to find your replacement, not caring who you stepped on to find them. We finally figured out that we should sleep in alphabetical order. But by then, day three, we were too exhausted to decide what that order was.

    Note that I didn't mention showers. Note also that I didn't mention latrine breaks. Again, I'm not kidding. We were cold and wet enough all the time that my clothes smelled only of dirt and mildew when we were done, not sweat, piss, or shit. They sure felt dirty, though.

    The tenth day, Belinitsky ran us until noon, probably thirty kilometers, then told us we were done and to rest. I fell asleep on a pile of rocks and didn't notice until I woke up with blood blisters and Ioburn. They let us shower and clean up then, and eat a full meal. I think I ate about 10,000 calories. My uniform was in rags and I tossed it. The medics stretched my back back into shape, handed me a bottle of basic painkillers, and told me to get back to it. I'd spend the rest of training with that "minor scoliosis" they'd discovered during my physical leaving me wincing and teary-eyed in agony. We run up to ninety-five percent of applicants out in training. It's efficient compared to some. We're very picky about who we take, and hold them as long as possible before even giving them the option to quit. Of course, a few do wind up in giggle wards for restruct. We'd only lost sixty percent so far, although ten percent more needed medical work before resuming training.

    The beginning of week four, they doubled our PT requirement. We didn't notice. No amount of physical distress could bother us now. The classes were the tough part, and we covered space physics (the effects of microgravity and various atmospheres on the human body) in paranoid detail, because mistakes would kill us. We'd covered it in Basic. We covered it again. I was glad to see that Deni was still with us, and she didn't seem to hold the pasting I gave her against me. It came to me that I had a really good friend cooking in her, as well as a great sex partner. Then I stopped thinking about it, because I had more to do.

    We moved to space the next week, and the ride was in a stripped cargo shuttle at high gees-I found out later it was seven-without padding. I gripped my harness in terror. I wasn't in control of the vehicle, couldn't see out of the vehicle, was at the mercy of others. I've never liked that. I don't like violent rides, I don't like chaotic maneuvers and I don't like being a bug in a box. The docking was bumpy and designed to make us puke, and I did. After I cleaned the mess up, I made my way to the lock, and was cycled through with three others.

    What they hadn't told us was that we weren't docked. I assumed we were and that the lock was a safety measure. As soon as we got in, the air vented fast, and we were in a panic state, beating on the inner hatch as we gasped at nothing. Ever seen a fish out of water? Ever wanted to know what that's like? As the atmosphere cleared, the outer door popped and there was a vacsuited instructor with a large sign that read, "GRAB THE LINE AND MOVE ACROSS QUICKLY."

    I moved with what you might call alacrity. The stabbing in my eyes and ears and nose and chest was not fun, and I was sure I was going to die. I snatched the rope, swarmed across hand over hand into the station, then pounded my fists on the inner hatch there waiting for Tom and the other two to cross. It was eerie, to hit so hard and hear not a sound besides your heart galloping. I think I actually heard my adrenal glands working. I gasped for air and got nothing. It affects the brain at a fundamental level and is disorienting and almost hallucinogenic. I got smart, snatched the handle and heaved, trying to let myself in, but nothing happened. I passed out from hypoxia while doing so.

    They dosed me with straight oxy to wake me up. It was all part of the plan. I coughed and hacked and wheezed and wasted the oxygen swearing up a storm at the instructors, the asshole who was last across, the military and the human race in general. The instructor just laughed, slapped me and told me to shut up.

    It became a daily ritual to Cross the Gap. The instructors made it worse by using retch gas and tear gas (they work even better when they have no air to hinder the spray projection, and your membranes are unshielded), "harassing" us (a fancy way of saying they beat anyone who was too inefficient), and then requiring us to stay tethered and fight our way back in. After twelve days of that, I found a way to grind myself a knife in the ship's shop and conceal it on my belt, which is where we came in in this story. I got points for that, for being creative and devious. That was always the goal. I also got beaten to a pulp by the two instructors in question. Although some of that likely had to do with me fighting back (we were encouraged to), and breaking Yeoh's arm.



    I suppose a lot of this sounds extreme. I'm told the exposure wasn't injurious, long term, in those small increments, and we were examined regularly and dosed with reconstructor nanos to repair any micro-lesions. It was all supervised, within strict boundaries, and designed to make us willing to take abuse and stress. When in combat, we'd be used in squad-sized units at most, usually smaller. The mission cannot be aborted because an Operative gets a minor injury like a lost finger or broken ribs. He simply has to continue and accept the risk of exacerbating the injuries or dying and plan on getting patched up after the fact if possible. Extreme? Of course. All Operatives are extremists. Someone has to define the boundaries.

    We continued unarmed combat training in emgee. Beyond the basics we'd learned, we acquired skills in grappling with the body as the base, rather than the floor; in using bulkheads, overheads and stanchions for leverage; and in crawling through the rat maze piping and skeleton of a ship. It was fun, and gradually became an automatic response to be aware of the surrounding in case of an attack, which we got several times a day. Tom wasn't as flexible as I, and he made sure to joke about my ability to put my head between my legs, but he had a broader build and could take more abuse. I joked about being right behind him in combat. I was almost sad when we had to return dirtside and to gravity.

    At this point, we split into two groups-Blazers and Operatives. Our morning routine remained the same, but the afternoon classes differed.

    If you are a religious person, I'd like you to remember this. Two hundred and forty-seven Operatives have died in the line of duty. At the end of time, the forces of evil will form ranks and march to the last battle. When they reach the gates of Heaven, they will find those Operatives guarding it. And if the legions of evil have any brains at all, they will about face and leave.

    Arrogant mythological babble? Yes. You have yours. I have mine. I've lost a lot of baggage over the years, and accepted that I am mortal-brainwashing only lasts through so many life-threatening encounters before one grows up. But I still believe with all my heart that we are special.

    During skill training, we were required to research and report on one of those two hundred and forty-seven. I was given Rowan Moran, and I recognized the name, but I wasn't sure from where. I got to work.

    I started reading and it clicked. He'd been the ambassador's bodyguard on Caledonia in 186 (2521 Earth calendar). Yes, that Rowan Moran. Briefly, for those of you who don't recall, he escorted the ambassador to a formal Crown function. Caledonian law prohibited foreign nationals, and almost all Caledonian citizens, from being armed in the royal presence. Hard to believe, I know. Who'd want to live in a society where the rulers don't trust the ruled? But it was their law, and he reluctantly went along with it at the ambassador's request.

    Luckily, they assumed his sword was merely ceremonial, like theirs.

    This was when the attack by the Common People's Action Group terrorists occurred. They swarmed past the palace guards, got amongst the Crown Princess and her siblings, and made a standoff. The guards couldn't respond quickly enough, as they were worried about unacceptable collateral casualties. To whit: the Royals.

    Moran put the ambassador down, stood up, and "boosted" with chemicals (I'll explain later). He took three terrorists apart with his sword, snatched a weapon and killed four more. Facing the last one, who had the princess in a death grip and as a human shield, he found himself out of ammo. He charged with the sword, drove the point bare centimeters past the Princess' face, through the chin of the terrorist and up out through his medulla oblongata, killing him instantly and preventing him from shooting the Princess as a last act. During the rescue, he was hit nine times and died right after his final thrust. Please note that it took nine hits to put him down. It took about a week to mop up the blood and assorted pieces of disassembled terrorists, and there was utter shock throughout the system.

    Immediately after that, the Queen demanded, and got passed in Parliament, a law recognizing the right of Freehold soldiers to be armed in the Kingdom and Freehold diplomatic guards to be armed even in the Royal Presence. That's also why Freeholders can always run to the Caledonian embassy in an emergency.

    I didn't realize the significance of this until much later. More than death, most people fear oblivion. Operatives know that, whatever happens, we will remember our own. And when it comes down to it, the respect and remembrance of your peers is more important than any fleeting fame in the public eye. It doesn't make death any less scary, but it provides some comfort while facing the process. Rowan is my comrade, though he died when I was a child.

    Research, history, and physical conditioning didn't stop us from having more technical training, and we started at the bottom. The very bottom, as in spears, bows, crossbows, thrown rocks, sticks, knives, and swords. This was above and beyond what everyone does in Basic. We even used primitive firearms for a few days. It was fascinating to compare the weapons to the lectures on strategy and tactics, and then compare that to modern hardware.

    If any of this narrative has made you queasy, you should probably skip the next section. Special Warfare Operative Survival Training is not for the faint-hearted. The good news is there's nothing you can scare me with after that ordeal. The bad news is, it's the most painful, disgusting, terrifying thing you can ever go through. Keep in mind that we underwent the most intense training possible before we were subjected to this. I don't recommend doing it to your friends as a gag. You'll kill them if you're lucky. If you aren't, they'll survive. Sort of.



    First point, it had only briefly been mentioned that this was going to happen. We had no idea when it would occur or how long it would last. When we were dragged out of bed, retch gas smoking up our nostrils and batons clubbing us, it was a shock. When we were hauled outside, shackled and hooded and cuffed and kicked about, it was scary enough to send rippling adrenaline shivers racing along my spine. Then they unbound us and stripped us of all but blindfolds, and started getting nasty…

    We were run along, jeered at, spit on and pelted with rocks and garbage. Whoever they were using as actors for this were taking perverse delight in it. I veered to the side at one point, sensing an obstacle ahead through the bare slit in the tied blindfold I could see through. As I did, someone jabbed me with a shock baton. I was urged back into line, and just managed to see the 2cm cable strung at shin height in time to trip over it rather than slam my legs into it. I sprawled, skinning the heels of my hands and grinding burning sand into them.

    While I was trying to recover from the searing pain, I was jabbed in the ass several times with a shock baton and screamed. One shot caught my scrotum and I stopped screaming. That it was dogfucking painful doesn’t begin to describe it. I barely held back from vomiting my stomach onto the ground in front of me, and I do mean the stomach, not the contents. My abdominals and diaphragm locked up, and I had what felt like a concrete block in my belly. I realized afterwards that the instructor had slipped and done that unintentionally. However, he could not break from his do-it-or-we’ll-kill-you persona for anything less than a life-threatening injury, so he kept jabbing my ass and thighs while I staggered from the gravel and sand and began running again. He gradually backed off and found other victims to share my ordeal.

    I was burning from his ministrations, from the gravel and dust driven into my skin, from the burning Iolight. I was afraid to even consider what might happen next in case I was right or in case it was even worse. Then I didn’t have to wonder.

    I was crammed, blindfolded, into a tight cage. My knees were jammed against bars, my toes wrapped painfully around mesh, and my shoulders were bent across a frame. Moving hurt. Not moving hurt, until I went numb. It was cold. No sooner would I go numb from inaction, someone would jostle me and I’d start to hurt all over again. My nerves were tingled, itched, burned, frozen, and variously tortured in ways I can’t describe. Won’t describe. I wasn’t fed. I was hosed with incapacitating and hallucinogenic agents.

    Extreme? Disgusting? Inhuman? Are those the words you’re looking for? All are inaccurate. Nothing can describe it. Nothing can compare to what we were put through, except real torture. A captured soldier can expect abuse, Conventions and Laws of War notwithstanding. An Operative can expect to be tortured slowly until betrayal or death. Sexual abuse and torture is so common most places as to not be remarkable. I’m sure you think you live in a civilized society and that that never happens. I sincerely hope you never get apprehended by your local police as a “guaranteed dirtbag” or any other term meaning they’re sure you’re guilty. There’s maybe four systems where you won’t be sexually abused, and we’re one of them. Yes, that includes men. Believe it. Yes, even on Earth.

    We took this as psychological training, and as a test to see who really didn’t have the nerves it takes to deal with it. It was a week. It was the longest, most terrifying ten days of my life. I’d been buddied up with Tom for weeks, and now I was alone. That didn’t help my state of mind, either. He was a freak, but he was a freak I’d learned to depend on.

    All alone, I recall hearing a conversation between two instructors that went approximately:

    Belinitsky: “Isn’t that the little fuck who smashed your helmet?”

    Daniels: “Yeah. Is anyone looking?”

    Belinitsky: “Nope. Who don’t you do him? Break his neck and claim it was an accident. I’ll cover for you.”

    Daniels: “Nah. I’ll settle for a minor injury. Got any broken glass?”

    Belinitsky: “I’ll find some.”

    Then they laughed, held a pistol up to my head, and fired nothing. Then they fired a blank off next to my ear. Then I got beaten while my head was still ringing.

    I spent the week receiving “accidental” trippings and elbowings, and expecting a lethal incident at any moment. It wasn’t vengeful, as everyone got similar treatment. Our incident in space was simply an excuse for them to build an act on. I had no idea at the time, of course.

    I became sure I’d survive the course on the third day, when Daniels told me that I’d have my legs broken and my teeth pulled if I moved a muscle. He clacked a pair of pliers suggestively at that last comment. I was left standing naked at rigid attention for three divs, almost nine Earth hours, not moving, barely breathing. My back was out again and every wiggle was shrieking agony that I couldn’t let to the surface. Occasionally, a thrown rock would smack me, and I’d wince the slightest bit. Iota Persei, our star, was cooking the skin off me, I was half blind from glare (we were on the lake shore), and it was cold enough after a while—remember it is at altitude, and Io has substantial ultraviolet, so you can burn even when it’s quite chilly—that I should have been shivering. I was too scared to do so. I stood stock still as mosquitoes and hoverers and other nasties crawled over me, stung me and bit me,…







    …the chill and dreading the breeze. And mosquito bites on the face and crotch are worse than boiling acid.

    After all that, he came over. Standing in front of me, he made an elaborate show of fitting detonator and timer into a one kilo demolition block. He sat it down on my toes, struck the fuse and stepped back. Then he made an aside to Yeoh. “When he moves, crack his shins for me. Then we’ll go to work on his jaw. Don’t damage his ribs until we’re done,” he said, then turned to me. He told me, “We’re allowed a certain number of deaths and injuries for this, Chinran. You’re one of them. Stay still, you die in less than three segs. Move, and we pound the snot out of you. You’re too eager to fight authority, and it’s time you had a lesson the rest of them will never forget.”

    I knew he was bluffing. I also knew I had a kilo of HE on my feet. I also knew he was allowed a number of injuries, and that he held a grudge over my cracking of his faceplate. I also knew that I wasn’t going to give the prick the satisfaction of moving. He’d get me out of the way before it blew. I also knew that I couldn’t plan on that, and the charge was real.

    About that time, my molasses-slow thoughts were interrupted by him glancing at his chrono, muttering, “Holy shit!” and running as fast as he could away from me, while Yeoh sprinted past him. I closed my eyes and waited for what I knew intellectually would be a training charge to blow my toes and balls off, and was afraid at gut level was a real charge that would blow my brains into orbit. I pissed myself, which hurt nothing since I was naked. It even warmed my right leg as it dribbled down.

    He was back a few moments later, after the fuze burned to nothing, muttering, “Chinran, you are one seriously insane dogfucker.” He removed the “explosive” and led me away. He then PTed me until I puked, for not trying to save myself.

    Don’t ever try to psych me out or stare me down. I don’t take bluffs worth a damn. And I play poker.

    It’s not hard to imagine that I got sick with the flu. I wasn’t the only one. Our bodies were being given a test that pushed to the limits of human capability. That does weaken it, and virii are always present. The fever was horrid, making my head spin. I felt weaker than I already was, and a few times I threw up hard enough to black out. I won’t describe what my ass was doing, except to say it was bleeding afterwards. Then the sinus infection moved into my throat and lungs. I cannot recommend a wracking cough as a complement to pinched nerves in the spine.

    You know the worst part? Listening to the women scream in agony. I was pretty sure I could pick Deni’s voice out of it, but it affected me about the same with the others. Gender Unification crap aside, men and women are not the same, and we are motivated differently. Seven million years of evolution has branded into the human male animal genes to protect women and children so the race will survive. Inquisitors love to use that for advantage while seeking intelligence from prisoners. It’s been a fact for centuries that the easiest way to make a tough, uncrackable man break is to torture a woman where he can see, or worse, just hear. Usually, information is forthcoming quickly. Operatives have to learn to be immune to that.

    I can’t be persuaded by the sounds of a woman being strangled, raped and beaten. I don’t like it, though. Not even when I know it’s a fellow professional. A civilian woman’s suffering disturbs me at my core. That’s as may be, but I won’t talk.

    When they finally let us out, we were haggard and worn. A quick, final hosing was a relief for the relative cleanliness it brought. We slept on a pile of (quite comfortable) quilts right there, and awoke to thin soup and crackers. It took an entire day to return to something that felt remotely human. They were very gentle with us that day, so we could start recovering. We’d lost another handful of people, some of them damaged psychologically from the stress. My spine was killing me, and I could barely walk. The docs stretched me out, hit me with electrostim and ice for the soft tissue damage, adjusted me as best they could, slapped me full of muscle relaxants and reconstructor nanos and told me to take it easy. One side effect of muscle relaxants is to reduce erectile reflex. I gave Deni as much attention as I could that weekend, lying flat on my back, but was frustrated in my own desires. Not that it mattered much; we were both beat to hell.



    Mountain Training was next, and we met back up with the some of the Blazer trainees. We all adjourned to a remote site in the Dragontooth range and started on a near-vertical face. They didn’t believe in babying us; we started climbing that day. The instructor went ahead, and as he climbed he shouted a lecture about handholds, toeholds, crevices, the dangers of cracks and mossy areas and more. He went up like a spider. We followed very gingerly. Too gingerly to suit him. Out came the tear gas. Ever cling to a wall while being gassed? It’s horrible.

    Climbing is painful. Not traumatically so, but it hurts in a steady, aching way. My fingertips got abraded raw even through the gloves I wore. My arms and legs cramped up from stretching at odd angles. The insides and caps of my knees were bruised and bloody in short order. Every time I slipped, I’d take skin off my face and off my shoulders, right through my shirt. It’s draining in adrenalin, calories burned, sweat in the eyes, aches and sheer concentration. You try not to think about the drop below you, and how a fall will either grate you to slivered meat on the face on the way down or smash you like a falling melon if you bounce clear. Tom and I didn’t make any jokes. We just clung to the rock and muttered to ourselves.

    We had one serious casualty, and one death the first day. Someone slipped and fell, twisted and landed neck first. The severe trauma made regeneration impossible. The other shattered his hip and a chunk of spine. I watched him fall right past me, and gripped the rock tighter. Yes, I cried. I wondered why I was there, as he screamed and screamed until they doped him and took him away for regen.



    I didn’t stick with it from sheer bravado. I stayed because I was afraid to admit I was scared. Had anyone else quit, I would have joined them. Looking back, I think we all felt that way. No one wanted to be first. We even joked about “bouncing” and how “a sucking chest wound is the universe’s way of telling you you screwed up.”

    We did climbing with equipment including the usual anchors, pins, ropes, explosive-set shanks and all the other goodies. Then we did free climbing, barefoot and barehanded, just as an exercise. It was good for our confidence but sheer hell on our bodies. Our final exam was in boots and gloves only, but one hundred plus meters straight up. I barely made it through the course and wet my pants several times, but I did make it through, so don’t even think about kidding me about it unless you can do the same. A lot of the smaller men and women just didn’t have the upper body strength. Even with protein enhancing muscle builders, which everyone was taking after our stress-test of qualification training, they simply weren’t strong enough. Reluctantly, we transferred them back to Mobile Assault.

    Each lesson, they’d add another item to our gear until we were carrying full assault packs. We lost a few people in this part, sheer physical overload. Most of them were near the bottom of the cliffs, but we had two more serious injuries requiring regen.

    We have few women in Special Warfare as compared to the regular forces, only about three percent, and they drink daily doses of protein enhancers at triple the rate of most women soldiers. We do infiltration and more sheer brute battlefield work. We carry heavier loads. This rules out most women physiologically, even with enhancement chemicals. Don’t like it? Hey, reality. Deni is an Operative, but I’m fifty percent stronger than she. There’s a reason we teach women in unarmed combat training to grapple—punching it out with a large man is a quick route to suicide. If the opponent is smaller, use brute force. If they are larger, grapple, evade, and outthink. But I digress. More than half who’d made it that far failed the climbing course.

    We had VIPs visit during the latter part of that course (it’s four weeks), and we shocked them senseless. We started our daily climb, after having been informed that we were putting on a show for guests, and figured to be mistreated. We weren’t disappointed.

    The instructors atop the cliff began dropping small pebbles on us, which stung the hands, chipped flesh even through fabric and clattered on the helmet. Then they threw flashbangs. The booms echoed through the valleys, BANG! bang ang rumblerumbleumbleble…BANG! rumblerumble BA-BANG! bang ang…

    Through that, we could barely hear the shouts from below. The VIPs were shocked and outraged that this was being done to students, forgetting that we were student killers. Not licensed to kill yet, but we had our learner’s permits.

    They were silent a few segs later, when instructors below us began shooting rifles at us. Well, not at us precisely. They were shooting near us, and as we couldn’t move very fast, there was minimal risk of them hitting us. If we panicked, however…but no one did. We were going up that 100 meter face as if it were a garden wall, and apparently we did impress them, even if the training outraged them.

    We snapped on harnesses, anchored ropes and fast rappelled down, shooting at targets as we went. We hit better than 80% of our targets, and were down the face in fifteen seconds. The hubbub from that told us they were beyond impressed. We went to a meet-and-greet.

    We were camo-painted, dirty, sweaty, grimy, propellant-drenched from the firing and generally not the type of people one would want in the parlor. These diplomats and politicians, with a few almost real military officers scattered in, were rather bothered by our presence. Rabbits. We gave our best grins and put on the rest of the show. Instructor now-Sergeant Daniels had me grab a tree branch and do pull-ups. I did thirty-five, even after all that exertion, and while wearing a twenty-kilo assault pack. And remember that our gravity is 118% of Earth normal. That’s a heavy pack, and I even impressed myself. The desk-sitting sheep I was introduced to had to be awed. At his request, I shrugged off the ruck and handed it straight-arm to one of the colonels from the UN. He reached for it, I let him grasp it, then I let go. It hit the ground and staggered him over with it. There were a few chuckles, but I’d impressed, no, terrified these people. My face was an emotionless mask and they thought I was something other than human. It showed in that they never addressed me directly, but always as third person to Daniels. “Can he—,” “Would you have him show us—.” They were afraid to talk to me. Good.

    Then Daniels threw them a curve. He left, and they had to address me. I loosened up my demeanor, and took the questions as they came. They were very slow to start.

    Finally, the colonel I’d used as a dummy broke the silence. “Private? Jelling is it?” he asked. He needed a rank to place me in his world. “Jelling” was one of many cover names I’d use whenever identified publicly as Special Warfare and not a normal soldier.

    “Blazer, Sir. All of us are addressed as Blazer. The idea is that lower echelon troops are not distinguished by rank so as not to question their capabilities. Any Blazer is suited for the task at hand. For the upper echelons, not using rank denies the enemy knowledge of who the actual team or squad leader is.” I was taking a slight liberty; I was not a Blazer or Operative yet. I didn’t think anyone would mind. And I’d never be IDed as an Operative in public.

    “I understand,” he replied. “Can you tell us about your weapon? It’s different than our issue, and I’d like to compare.”

    He’d even picked a subject on which I was an expert. I could have kissed him. For the next few segs, they all stood slack-jawed as I gave the full, personally annotated lecture on individual weapons. I yanked back the bolts, dropped the clips, locked the receiver and passed my weapon, “Joseph,” (after Joseph Merrill, the designer) over to him.

    I started to lecture: “The concept of the assault rifle dates back to World War Two, from 1939 to 1945, Earth calendar. During it, the Germans developed the Sturmgewehr 43…

    “The Soviet Simonov and Kalashnikov designs proved effective, simple and popular…

    “Eugene Stoner’s work on the AR series, AR-10, AR-15, AR-18 specifically, then showed…

    “The US Army battle lab speced and tested, in the early twenty-first century, a unified weapon combining both rifle and repeating grenade launcher. While flawed in many ways…

    “Most nations have gone to a design of electrically fired cartridges, however, we find that the mechanical system is only marginally less accurate, and less prone to failure in the field. Now, on to the M-Five Weapon, Soldiers, Individual…”



    After that, they no longer thought me a dumb grunt. I’d detailed historical facts that most of them could barely place in a time-line, and they nodded the polite nods of people who are out of their depths. Looking back, I wouldn’t have made our capabilities known, but I presume it was an attempt to send a message. We were shown to them as a warning of what capabilities would be unleashed in a war. How sad it didn’t work.

    We resumed mountain training, moving up to the high plateaus and glaciers. We didn’t do much alpine skiing; we did do a lot of cross-country. We also trained with snowshoes, which are much harder to use than one would imagine, especially when humping a ruck. You have to swing your legs wider to avoid bumping your own ankles and take long steps. I much prefer skis. Actually, I much prefer snow skimmers. Actually, I prefer a warm hotel room with Deni’s painted lips wrapped around…

    Well, never mind. All I could do was think about it, and it did keep me warm. That’s rules one and two of both mountain and arctic survival: Stay warm and keep busy, both physically and mentally. Boredom and slow metabolism will kill you.

    Of course, Tom had comments about that. We dug and piled a snow shelter around our rucks, then crawled in with our cloaks. Body heat was the only way to stay warm.

    “Now, can you imagine if we had a woman in here—”

    “Yes, quite well, Tom. Goodnight.” I didn’t tell him which woman specifically I was thinking of.

    After that, we actually spent some time in the tropics. We’d covered jungle survival and cold ocean in Basic, but not warm water. What they gave us was basically a class rather than an activity, and then we got on with the matter at hand, which was dive training. You know: air tanks and snorkels.

    Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Space has one pressure: effective zero. Under water, the pressure goes up quickly as you go deeper. You must balance oxygen, CO2 and inert gas different ways for different depths. Mistakes there, as with everything we do, will kill you. We did deployments to colder waters, rivers, and even harbors. We swam for kilometers a day, and even “warm” water sucks the heat out of you. Choppy, rolling ocean waves are a bitch to swim through, effectively tripling the distance at least, worse if they’re heavy.

    Don’t rule diving out as archaic. All human planets have water. We can use that water to move about unseen. We’ll use anything we can. We trained on vehicles, basic aircraft, maneuvering sleds and thruster harnesses in space, horses and camels, more parachuting, any way to insert you can think of and a few you can’t.



    We had yet another survival test after all that. This one had a difference—it was the “Practical Escape and Evasion Tactics Examination.” All they told us was to expect anything. It was scheduled rather than sprung on us, so we knew it couldn’t be that bad. At least, we thought so. They had a lot of aircraft on hand, which made me wonder exactly what they had planned. I Found Out Soon Enough, as they say.

    I was prepped in a fashion I didn’t like (which I’ll come back to), driven across the flightline at the AirFac and stuffed onto a VC-3 Hummingbird, which has just enough room for six passengers. Four were already there, Yeoh and I were the other two. We lifted fast and headed north. On most recently settled planets, and at 200 Earth years, Grainne is recent, north is bad. On Grainne, north is even worse.

    So, we flew across the Hinterlands, all low scrub and rough ground with interglacial puddles and swamp, and I knew this was to be one hell of a test. I shortly found out just how sadistic the military could be. I was already wondering what the plan was, as the uniform I had been issued at prep had no laces, zips, mesh, or buttons. I’d had to hold it together with my hands as we boarded.

    The pilot slowed and hovered, then brought us down. Sergeant Yeoh grinned a sick grin at us, and said, “This is it. We’ll drop you here. The test lasts up to ten days.”

    He continued, “Now, pay attention. In one div, the rescue students will begin searching for you. Pilots, as soon as you are found, you will be pulled and pass.”

    Then his grin turned downright vicious. “Operative, you must stay hidden for ten days. You must also keep the pilots hidden for ten days. If one of them escapes and is recovered, you fail, and you know what that means.”

    God and Goddess. I didn’t ask if he was serious. I knew he was. I thought furiously as the vertol dropped, touched, and the door popped. We were chivvied out and it started.

    First, I grabbed the nearest two pilots and smacked them senseless as the vertol powered away, blasting us with cold breeze and debris. I hobbled them with their flightsuits over their boots and tied the sleeves together as tight as I could manage. Then I took off after the other two. The first one wasn’t that far away, but I was hindered by my clothes trying to fall off. I got close and kicked him in the shin hard enough for him to scream. I followed it with a stiff one to the guts and the scream turned to heaves. I pulled his sleeves down and lashed them to his right thigh. He wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. I ran the other way to catch the last one.

    He was a sneaky little bastard. He’d headed off at a sprint in the farthest orientation and had dropped low to crawl. Worse, he seemed to be fairly decent at evasion; I didn’t see a trail to start with, and I had to find him soon before the others got free. There was a slight drag through the tall, spiky weeds, but it could be any animal, not just him.



    “I have a deal for you,” I yelled. “Show yourself and I’ll make sure it’s a comfortable ten days. Stay hidden and I’ll beat you when I find you, and for the duration. It makes no difference to me.”

    No response. I hadn’t expected one. I dashed out farther, and began a zigzag back toward the landing site. I figured he couldn’t get past me, and would be easier to catch if he headed back in.

    There he was. Coarse grass was rolled over him from both sides, which was easily visible to me, but he had been in a hurry. I ran over and dove for him.

    He fought. He was good, too. I got nailed in the nose and the ribs, and it took a few seconds to beat him into submission. I hoisted him to his feet, twisted his arm into a hold he couldn’t break, and marched him gasping back toward the others. I started with the one I’d crippled in the shin, and swiped laces to tie them back to back by their thumbs. Then I grabbed the other two, now struggling free, and repeated the procedure after thumping them again. Then back to the first pair. I was panting by the time I finished, and it must have looked ridiculous—one man with his pants falling off getting intimately close to lash four other people together.

    I dispensed with formal introductions, but did get their names as I worked. Shortly, I was wearing a flightsuit that fastened, the four of them weren’t, and their hands were lashed behind them. Spaceboat Flight Engineer Plante was wearing my uniform, which was two sizes too big for her. Close Support Vertol Pilot McKay had her suit, far too snug on him, I wore his, and the other two (Spaceboat Navigator Sereno and Spaceboat Offensive Weapons Systems Operator Hickey) wore each other’s. They couldn’t go far like that, as their suits would either fall off and hobble them, or were too tight to allow good movement. None of them had bootlaces.

    But I had a deadline to keep to have them hidden. I had them restrained, now I had to cut the deal. I faced Rob McKay, who’d hid and fought me, and kneed his balls up into his throat four or five times. He collapsed and curled up, retching. “I offered you a deal and you refused. I’m a man of my word,” I told him.

    “This can be as hard as you want it,” I told them. My voice was raspy from exertion in the cold, dry air. “I plan to keep us hidden for ten days. If you go along with it, you’ll be mostly comfortable. Mess with me and you’ll get back half dead. Or all dead. I really don’t care. I’ll kill you if you look at me funny. Now, we walk toward that scrub over there,” I said, indicating a low spot that had heavy growth, “heavy” being a relative term. It was about five kilometers, and the fact that I could see it that far away gives you an idea of the terrain.

    They walked sullenly through the stalky grass, stepping along as their boots flopped, almost falling off. I prodded them to urge a little eagerness and we made it to the depression. Step three.

    “I’ll cut one of you loose to help build a shelter. Try to escape and you’ll all be freezing and miserable tonight.” I found a lone tree near a wet spot that would serve my purpose and lashed them to it with clothes and laces.

    They didn’t fight too hard over that. I left McKay wrapped and used Sereno, supervising while holding a rock. I didn’t really need it, but it was an authority symbol, and a primal one. We used reeds and grass and a few precious sticks to lash a lean-to together, and I turned to fetch the others from the knot I’d tied them in.

    Plante had been struggling, trying to break free from the trunk. She stared defiantly at me, until I grabbed her ankle and twisted it in a most unnatural direction. She grimaced, snorted breath through her nose and finally growled as she winced. I kept at it and twisted a bit more to make sure she got the hint. Then I put a stranglehold on her, watching her thrash in instinctive terror until she passed out. I threw her uniform open and left her like that for the night, shivering and cursing quietly. At least, quiet after we had a discussion of the risk noise posed for discovery.

    I stayed awake. I figured one complete day wouldn’t hurt me much. Besides, I had things to do. I improved the camouflage slightly, although I didn’t plan on staying long in one place. Then I gathered some twigs heavy enough to build a small fire, and tinder and kindling. Next, I expended a few thousand calories patiently scraping ignition compound from a rescue flare to get the fire started. Fire has a primal effect on people, and any camp becomes “Home” psychologically once there’s flames. Cooked food was a luxury I could offer them that would dull their desire to leave. I’d make it better for them here than alone and that would make it easier for me. To that end, I had adequate material supplies, having liberated everything the pilots carried. That didn’t, for training purposes, include any knives or weapons. A few segs with a flake of rock (damned hard to find) and a stick got me a frog spear. I found not only Earth frogs, dull and slow in the cold and easy to catch in the shallows, but a couple of pseudomanders and some tricky, skinny local frog analogs, the ones we call michigans. I have no idea why they are called that, as they never saw Michigan, which is in North America. They sing loudly, but shut up as soon as anyone comes close.



    They roasted nicely on the coals, and I mean on the coals. I kept the fire small and virtually invisible on sensors, I hoped. To further hide it, I had it under tall grass to break up the image, and doused it as soon as I was done. No, frogs don’t taste like chicken. Similar, but that’s because they are white meat. I ate enough to keep me going, peeling meat off bones with my teeth, and saved the legs. John Sereno and Pete Hickey woke up, and I let them dig into the rich, tough meat on the hind legs. McKay and Plante gave me murderous looks, but they’d struggled, so they didn’t eat. Punishment and reward was how I planned things. I could hear them coughing all night as the cold, now damp, settled into their lungs. They weren’t any happier when I gave them their morning thumping, either. McKay got the gonad treatment, Plante got a boot in the belly until she screamed and dry-puked. They were somewhat mollified when I assured them that good behavior would get them dinner and no more beatings.

    After that it wasn’t too hard. We all had diarrhea from waterborne parasites, of course. I kept us all fed adequately if not in gourmet fashion, and I released one of them at a time to help build shelters when we moved. I wanted to stay as far ahead of any trackers as possible, so as to delay the inevitable past the deadline. Fires were small and buried, dead brush was used as far as possible and we stayed bundled in our clothes for heat. By the end of ten days, we all stank and were only too grateful for the pickup. I’d wrung what information I could out of my captives and the instructors seemed satisfied. As soon as we debriefed, I was posted to Black Ops Team Three. Tom and I said goodbye and hugged. He was headed for Team One. Deni was posted with to Team Three also and would arrive later, after a stop at Small Arms Repair School.

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