Chapter 1: Fun and Games
10y, 1m AV
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean
Personal Protection Services Evaluation
Staff Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés
Adam and John kept watch at a respectable distance as Mrs. Murphy went about her business. She was the volunteer “high profile target” that the Protectors were, well, protecting for this exercise. The ancient and kindly woman slowly and carefully re-shelved the books in HMS Sharman’s modest library while the Protectors remained vigilant for any threat.
In that case it was a simulated threat, the nature of which they would not know for the exercise. Both already had their certifications; Adam by that point in his career had grown into an excellent student by sheer necessity, as his career’s advanced training courses were almost entirely academic. He dragged John with him and together the Protectors tackled the high-priority items on their ever-growing training wishlist.
At the top of the list was their personal protection certificates. After all, they were Protectors, right? Shouldn’t they be legally certified anywhere they may be needed in human space? And they had most of the skills already. Over the course of their SOR training they had mastered so many combative styles—wrestling and judo in particular—and practiced so many tactical possibilities that their personal protection instructors had, at the end of it, questioned who exactly was training who.
That left the field exams. The more realistic scenarios were no challenge because Adam, as it turned out, was an absolute natural as a bodyguard. He had an eye for the job like few the instructors had ever seen. He spotted the threats almost immediately and neutralized them most often by simply being there and making eye contact. He was, after all, an extremely intimidating man without his trademark smile. His titanic muscles bulged so large and hard through his fatigue uniform there was no hiding his power. But despite his incredible mass he moved quickly and lightly on his feet, practically bouncing about on his toes even while wearing his “small” combat load of well over a half ton of armor, gear, weapons, and heavy combat boots.
He was so intimidating, in fact, the local “goons” they’d hired to simulate his opponents were reluctant to make any attempts. It was only after promises of kid gloves and a demonstration of the same that anyone would agree. But that remained a problem. They were far too nervous and that made them easy to spot; Baseball had similar problems. He may not have been as heavy or strong as his massive fellow but he was certainly taller and more nimble on his feet, and like ‘Horse or the Aggressors his dangerous speed was evident in his bearing and presence. Which, of course, ensured his set of “goons” were equally intimidated.
That’s when Firth hit upon using the Aggressors. The reasoning was simple; since both the Protectors had amply demonstrated they could spot threats and react, all that remained was demonstrating the protection itself. And who better to test them than the supreme close-quarter combat experts of the SOR?
And so there they were, guarding a sweet old lady and her musty books. She seemed quite taken with the idea from the outset, though that may have had much to do with Adam’s handsome puppy-dog smile and his habit of wearing sports jerseys or tank tops on active days, at least when he needed to be some form of publicly decent. Not that they hid much; his physical charisma was immensely compelling no matter what he wore.
In fact, he was so big nowadays that he needed to tailor even those for the breadth and depth of his frame. All the men of SOR suffered this problem to varying degrees but Adam arguably had it the worst, being both the shortest and by far the heaviest man on the team. Fabricating nearly all his own clothes—and many on the team as well, especially Firth and Burgess—was annoying but had the added bonus of no logos, terrible slogans, “Tapout” flavor, or any other aspect of the gym-douche culture they so very much hated.
Of course, when Mrs. Murphy learned of his sewing her eyes lit up and she wondered if he would be willing to join her needlework group, and inquired if perhaps the SOR would supply her friends with projects as well. John, being his best friend, ensured he would never hear the end of it. But the SOR didn’t complain; clothing was becoming a major personal expense for all of them. Adam found a polite way to decline and did so.
Undaunted, she agreed to the exercise, stating an adventure with the two big and handsome lads would be a welcome change of pace. And like seemingly every woman Adam encountered, she immediately discovered his propensity to blush and grin sheepishly when flirted with or teased.
The poor boy really was easy.
A sound. Both Adam and John noticed it and closed around Mrs. Murphy. They were in the middle of the stacks which would make an ambush the worst possible thing. The central promise was that the SOR would cause no damage to anything. But, Firth was in charge and he was, well, an intense personality.
“Ma’am, we need to move.”
“But I am not—”
“Oh,” as realization dawned, “I see. Well, lead the way.”
They hastened their exit. A corner approached, which Adam silently cursed. Both of the Protectors were so broad they had to turn their shoulders to fit their enormous frames through doors. Now they were stuck moving through a very narrow stack. So narrow, in fact, they had to squeeze down the passage perfectly sideways while Mrs. Murphy proceeded as normal. Even then, the depth of their chests and back threatened to damage the stacks. And that was with their packs carried at their sides instead of worn.
John took point. He made a textbook examination of the T-intersection to the larger walkway, found nothing, and proceeded forward. Sadly, what he neglected to do was check underneath the enormous circulation desk forming the perpendicular surface of the T. It directly faced the narrow corridor from between the stacks. Cautiously, Adam encouraged Mrs. Murphy to move forward.
Right at the moment he cleared the corridor and was in the T-intersection, Firth sprang forth from behind the desk and leapt above the second story, a hollow Nerf boffer-sword drawn and ready. How he crammed his giant frame under the desk was a bit of a mystery. As was his appearance. He had his face done up in blue Berserker paint and wore nothing but a kilt. Was his garb calculated to surprise? If so, it wasn’t very effective. Adam growled and leapt clear over Mrs. Murphy’s head, trusting in his teammate to whisk her to safety. This Burgess did before the two giant men smacked loudly together in mid-air.
Firth swung the sword harmlessly at Adam’s head right before they collided. It was meant as a distraction and it was effective; Adam instinctively raised his arm to block and that put him out of position. Firth grinned inwardly and snatched Adam before he could react, twisted around and landed right on top of him, driving their incredible combined mass directly into the unyielding concrete floor. They crashed to the ground, Adam briefly dazed by the force of the impact. But before Adam could even properly react, Firth seized Adam around his waist—well over two tons of man and gear—then yanked him backwards through a wrestler’s bridge and suplexed him HARD into the floor, sending a noticeable shudder through the building.
Of the SOR, only the Protectors or Firth could accomplish such a feat. Rebar was probably the only other member strong enough but he was too short—around five-foot-ten, like Arés—and lacked the necessary mass or leverage. Or speed. But Firth stood over six-foot-eight in his bare feet and his perpetually crouched-and-ready posture, and was a man not insurmountably far short of the Protectors where mass and strength was concerned. He alone was a proper match for them in that kind of combat and that was important given how strong those three men were.
And it was a good thing he was so big and tough, because Adam had instinctively lashed out with his legs and grabbed Firth around the waist, squeezing so hard that he was painfully and instantly winded. He reacted immediately with Aggressor speed, wormed his way into a bridge and escaped before Adam had the presence of mind to lock his legs together. Firth immediately flipped over and pressed his advantage. At that moment Adam’s situational awareness returned and, seeing Firth on the attack, turtled up and donkey-kicked.
Firth dodged; good for him, since a kick by Adam was little different from his callsign’s namesake. Firth was therefore forced out of position and Adam took advantage. He grabbed ahold of Firth’s arm and the opposite shoulder with so much force, the muscles underneath were instantly torn by the crushing grip. Such a grip would’ve smashed a normal man’s shoulder to paste, but Firth merely grunted in annoyance and kneed Adam in the gut. In response he growled and quickly slammed Firth face-down to the ground. Adam squeezed much harder with his giant paws to drive home the point. As anticipated, he felt that arm and shoulder go limp, the nerves and muscles squeezed like soft putty and the blood flow cut off. He then forced himself up and onto Firth’s back, wrapped his limbs viciously around Firth’s torso, then smashed so hard both men felt a rib cleanly break.
Firth again grunted in pain and attempted to muscle himself up to his feet. He was doomed, of course, with his arms momentarily handicapped and his power no match for Adam’s raw strength, but that was part of the plan; his purpose was only to delay. Adam had a tendency to fixate on an individual and would most likely battle Firth until he gave up. So he didn’t, and earned himself two more broken ribs and additional injuries as Adam squeezed, slammed, and destroyed his foe.
Meanwhile, Murray simply snuck up behind John and tapped Mrs. Murphy on her shoulder. Game over. John didn’t hear or see it coming. Adam did from his vantage point and tried to voice a warning, but Firth chose that moment to show his real strength. He stood up with Adam latched onto his back—successfully this time—waited the bare moment for Adam to attempt repositioning, spun around quickly, hip-tossed his foe flat onto the ground, and pile-drived his fist square into Adam’s ribs. There was a satisfying multiple crunch as bones snapped and Adam was winded. Grinning viciously, Firth quickly pinned with his legs and swung his fists with absolute brutality into Adam’s gut, hard and fast and relentless, doing all he could to keep Adam winded and dazed as long as possible. Adam of course tensed his iron-hard core to defend himself, but Firth did not notice the pain building in his fists as hairline fractures developed and spread. He had a mission.
There was a whistle. Firth delivered one last punch for good measure, panted for a long moment, grinned down with absolute savagery at his opponent, then helped Adam up. He lifted Adam from the ground and off his feet with little apparent strain and swallowed him in a huge, body-slamming hug.
“You good bro?”
“Yuh. Fuck,” he grinned wearily, “You worked me over good!” Firth nodded happily as they nuzzled briefly, forgiving each other their pain. Satisfied there was no animosity, he set the monstrous Protector down onto slightly unsteady feet. They held close while their pounding hearts caught up with their oxygen needs in the thin Cimbrean air and their brains regained full control of their bodies and balance. Recovered somewhat, he fetched his Crude patches while Adam wobbled slightly, still a bit winded. Actually opening the patch proved extremely difficult, as Adam’s ribs and iron-hard abs were a bit more than Firth’s fists could handle. He found it very painful to open or close them. Or, suddenly, move his arms at all.
Adam noticed. “Heh, lemme give you the shot. You’re hurt pretty bad.” Firth grunted thankfully.
“You’re in just as bad of shape, dude.” Firth said it with a knowing smirk, pleased at the damage he had wrought. It had somehow become a competition.
“Bullshit you giant fuck, I know I broke three of your ribs and I felt your shoulder give, and I bet I tore your hamstrings, too! And what about your hips?”
“…Fair. It sucks walking with those torn. But I bet I may have bruised your kidneys. And I know I broke a rib, too.”
“Two ribs, you goddamned asshole.” He chuckled and thought for a moment. “Y’know, as big and broad as you are, me and ‘Base never shoulda taught you how to get strong like us. You’re growin fuckin’ scary fast, bro.”
“Nah, not like you two.” He grinned evilly, “not yet, anyway. Gotta catch Baseball first.”
“You prol’ly will,” chimed in ‘Base as he and an almost imperceptibly smug-looking Murray approached. “I mean, I’ll make it hard for you,” ‘Base grinned with all the macho bravado he could muster, “But you’re just too goddamned naturally big and you’ve got the widest shoulders on the team. Hell, maybe one day you’ll challenge ‘Horse!”
“It’d be ‘bout time I had someone who could hang.”
“Fuck you midget, fuck you and your perfect leverage!”
“Ain’t my fault I’m the correct height. Come down to my level!”
“Lads, as amusing as this all is,” said Powell from around the corner, “I reckon we should debrief, seeing as Mrs. Murphy has died by ninja and we are now without a librarian.”
There was respectful grumbling all ‘round while Powell eyed the aftermath with a twinkle in his eye. As promised there was no damage to the facilities. Well, one of the big brutes had put his foot through a wall in the scuffle, but that was an easy enough fix. He apologized and promised immediate repairs while Mrs. Murphy assured him it was not a problem, and that they could “kidnap” her any day. She smiled a wicked little smile as she said this.
Which, coming from an elderly woman, was always a bit disconcerting.
They walked away after shots were given and bodies stretched to place muscles and bones in their correct location, and sufficient time had passed to ensure a proper set by the Crue-D. Adam had taken a particularly vicious pleasure in re-seating Firth’s shoulder. Forcefully. Firth in turn complained loudly and good-naturedly.
“Man up, bro, I’mma be pissing blood in an hour!”
Firth merely grinned and shrugged his shoulders, then winced. “Totally worth it. Ow.”
“Heh. Also,” said Baseball, “I gotta ask: why the kilt?”
“Oh that’s easy. It was fun and it gave our ‘victim’ a little thrill. Why not?”
They all looked at each other. Powell worked his jaw and pretended not to hear.
“Bro are you—DUDE. She’s, what, seventy-five? Did you go True Scotsman under there?”
“Damn right I did. Us three big boys are God’s gifts to the ladies, man. Gotta show it off!” He waggled his eyebrows to the raucous jeers of the other men.
Then Murray sealed their fate. “We should call you three ‘the Footlongs’.”
“NO.” Adam’s mortified reaction was loud and instant, thus ensuring the epithet’s unavoidable and permanent assignment.
“Hell yeah we should!” Baseball could not help but enthuse. “And ‘Horse is our natural leader!” Firth and Burgess high-fived and grinned the smuggest grins a man could possibly grin.
Adam wasn’t as pleased. “GODDAMNIT IT ISN’T—”
“Like showing it off, do ‘ya Righteous?” Rebar joined them once they had exited the library. His tone was more than a little menacing. “Well in that case, perhaps you would like to rework the zen garden over by the lady’s barracks. I think it needs to be bigger, too. Much bigger.”
Firth deflated almost instantly. “…Yes, serg’nt first class.”
“Mhmm. And since you seem to be so uninhibited you can wear those hot-pink ranger shorts ‘Horse made for you last Valentine’s, too. Wouldn’t want the ladies to miss out.”
His ears went beet red. “…Yes, serg’nt first class.”
“Oh, and you had best finish that garden by this evening or I will find additional duties, understand? I will ensure the females will be notified to keep you on-task.”
All present recognized this as some truly cruel Motivation. The women knew exactly how to put the men of SOR in their place. Rebar nodded, left to take care of other matters, and left the men to their fates.
Adam and John couldn’t restrain their smiles. Neither could Firth.
“Lads, was it really necessary to go so hard?”
Both injured men grinned that special smile brought on by pain and brotherly bonding.
“For this purpose, yes sir,” explained Firth, still in his Berserker paint. His shoulder and arm were bruised an alarming, livid purple, and where Adam’s fingers had squeezed their crushing grip it was nearly black. “The point of the exercise wasn’t to win or lose. Frankly, it’s generally impossible to predict close-quarters interactions like this. The point of the final exam was to see if ‘Horse and ‘Base have game. And they do.” He nodded solemnly at the Protectors.
“Is that your professional opinion, Firth?”
“Yes sir. Used t’be a trainer m’self. It’s all in my file.”
“Aye. And that always entailed such…vigorous testing, did it?”
Firth grinned his savage grin. “It did with me, sir. The STS flat forbid me from testing any of the men on the teams. That’s ‘cuz I sent several civilian students to the hospital in my very first class. Tough fuckers, all o’ them. But y’know what? They passed. I tested ‘em like I was genuinely tryin’ to break ‘em an’ it’s the only way to do it right. Go big or go home! Worked out good for ‘em too. The local bosses who watched the evals? They hired those bros on the spot.
“This one little guy? I cracked his sternum with a punch but he managed to kick me right in the nuts and floored me. Then I sorta lashed out and broke his legs, and, uh, a bunch more of him I guess. Don’t really remember. But he’d passed. The Principal got away. Kid hadta spend time in traction but he still got hired.” He smiled proudly. “New employer picked up his medical bills, too. Good kid. Still keep in touch.”
Powell studied Firth carefully. Normally a man would squirm under such scrutiny but Firth was not a normal man. He bore it happily. Friendly-like, even. “Your unit file only briefly mentioned this…I thought you would be a good training instructor but I had no idea you held such a hardcore reputation.”
“Ask my unit if you want. They can verify it all. But see? I don’t fuck around with this kinda thing. It’s life and death, sir. I make sure anyone I teach will do absolutely whatever it takes to win. And these two fellas here not only will, but they’re prolly the only dudes I’ve ever met where I don’t need to pull my punches. Hell, Adam can straight up break me if he gets a good hold.” He turned and smiled at Arés, “Kinda like he did today. Shit’s gonna hurt for days, man!”
‘Horse blushed a bit at that while ‘Base slapped the massive Protector’s back.
“Nobody else, hmm?” Powell ran an evaluative eye over the three giants. “That include your fellow Aggressors?”
“Yup.” It was a blunt and honest assessment. “Murray’s just a bit too ninja for me to win a quick fight but he’d break the second I got my hands on ‘em. Blaczynski?” He snorted in approval, “He’s like a slab of iron, the little shit. Almost as hard as ‘Horse! Gotta wear ‘em down first, but I can. Jus’ takes longer.”
“And me?” Now that was a rare challenge, one Adam and John never thought they’d see.
Firth considered the match-up carefully. “…I dunno, to be perfectly honest. I’m pretty sure I’d break you too but…you’ve got cunning and experience, and that counts for a lot.”
“Aye.” As always it was perfectly phrased, admitting neither weakness nor ego.
Firth grinned a bit aggressively, “But I reckon it’d be a fun fight!”
Powell nodded agreeably but did not rise to the challenge. A thought occurred suddenly. “Wait. ‘Ow big were you when you were doin’ this?”
“Eh, let’s just say that I was way bigger than that Icelandic strongman guy too, ‘member him? Yeah. Basic and the CCT training pipeline pretty much starved me down to a beanpole, but even then I was easily the biggest an’ strongest dude they’d ever had go through the program. Lightest I’d been since I was fifteen in fact. Once I could eat properly again I shot back up to a nicely comfortable fighting weight. Things were pretty good so I didn’t push the limits again until I heard about the SOR, but once I was really trying though…I grew like a goddamned weed even before I started the Crude! But I weren’t surprised, not really. I’ve always been huge. Runs in the family!”
Powell boggled at the casual, drive-by description of Firth’s exceptional adolescent development. “Wait. You were that big at fifteen? Were you always such a prodigy?” Firth, for his part, seemed to enjoy the disbelief.
“Yup! I was six feet tall and a heavyweight wrestler and powerlifter when I was only twelve. Wrestled varsity since the forth grade, undefeated state champion up to the sixth grade before I got too big. Only reason I wasn’t ever national champion was ‘cuz they didn’t take twelve-year-olds in the varsity division.”
Powell raised an eyebrow. Firth grinned, then chuckled darkly. “Well…they also mighta been mad I broke their golden boy at the state tournament. He was good but I was way fuckin’ stronger. We tussled for a bit, then I just sorta powered him over into a spladle and bent him in half so hard that I cracked his ribs and dislocated his hips, and broke some other stuff, too. Did it so fast the ref couldn’t stop me. I kinda got lost in the fight but the ref was smart enough to slap me back to reality. Golden boy? Fuck. Poor bastard just sorta…went limp. Went limp and kinda gasped a bit when I untangled myself.”
He grinned primally, but then a flicker of remorse played across his face. “I won the state championship, but, uh…he left the tournament on a stretcher, which, y’know, fuckin’ sucks. I kinda wish I hadn’t ended the match like that. I mean…I wanted to win, not ruin his wrestlin’ career. Fuck.”
Firth slumped, growing genuinely sad as he told the tale. “He was a good dude, y’know? He was my hero! He’d been recruited by Iowa State but, well…I broke him so hard he lost his ride. I felt real bad ‘bout it so I hung out at the hospital while he healed up. I also snuck him, uh, like, chocolate and beer and stuff. Whatever I could do to cheer him up. Man…I hope he ain’t still mad at me.”
Powell eyed Firth warily. “Did the lad recover?”
“Oh, yeah! He had to do some physical therapy but he weren’t, like, paralyzed or nothin’ thank God. I hear tell he stayed active and in shape but he never wrestled again. His hips were always loose after that, I guess.”
“You said you hope he isn’t still mad. Would he have reason to be?”
“Not…really? I mean, he did really good for himself after that, went into theoretical physics of all the fuckin’ things. Smart little shit…”
Firth shook his head to free his thoughts from nostalgia. “Anyway, that whole thing meant I hadta give wrestling up before I started high school. Pretty soon I hadta give up football too, right after my freshman year. I didn’t hurt nobody on the field but I did come close a few times. They let me finish the season—state champions!—and then we all decided it was prolly best if I drop outta team sports. So I took up MMA and every martial art I could find along with powerlifting and all of that on top of the fuckin’ farm work. No other way to get my aggression out, y’know? Spendin’ a few hours every day after chores beatin’ on bags and liftin’ shit kept me outta trouble for the most part. Then I found out about CCT and decided that’d be about the only thing outside o’ throwin’ bales I’d be good at, and, uh, this and that happened, and here I am.”
Everyone glanced at each other quickly. Firth smiled happily.
“Right…And now you’re one of the biggest on the team?”
“Yup! A little over twelve-fifty now, which is, like, four-fifty more than Rebar, who’s the biggest guy on the team outside us three.” He smiled, deeply pleased with himself. Then, in an almost disbelieving tone, “But fuck, these two? I’m way behind! Fuck!” Firth chuckled while Arés grinned proudly and happily.
“Dang,” commented Baseball, “You’re catching up fast.”
Righteous smiled happily, pulled Baseball into himself, and snuggled their heads together with puppy-like affection. “Yup! Still ain’t nearly as strong as you but I’m gonna git ‘ya. And I’m just as fast as you both after y’all left me in the dust last year. Finally strong enough!”
He smiled his crazy smile again. “But I ain’t growing exactly like these two miracle boys just yet an’ they only taught me how they do it like six months ago. Horse’ll prol’ly get a lot bigger before I catch up, maybe.”
Powell remembered a time when such numbers would boggle his mind. But being over four-fifty himself and the smallest man on the team, he could only marvel in an abstract manner at what could happen when human biology was fully unleashed.
So instead of shock, he merely asked, “Why are you two so far ahead?”
Adam considered. “Well, medical thinks it’s ‘cuz he’s a full adult, sir. ‘Base and I are kinda stuck in young adult mode, like that year right outta high school, y’know? It’ll prol’ly be a while before Firth can do the same. More aging damage to repair, maybe?” He shrugged. Crue-D was new territory for the human race and he didn’t pretend to have any special knowledge of what would happen next.
“They din’t put that in their report.” Powell considered that piece of info. He’d need to debrief medical a bit more thoroughly.
“It’s just a theory. ‘Base and I don’t really know why we respond so much better than anyone else. Or, y’know, had this crazy frame growth, thicker bones an’ skull, bigger pelvis, longer arms, wider shoulders, stronger hands an’ feet an’ all that. Or if Firth’ll see the same. But the thing is? Firth is already a fuckin’ gorilla. He’s still bigger’en me in all those measures, even the whole ‘can’t find shoes’ thing.”
“Hadta get ‘em custom made since I was thirteen. An’ for the record mine are only slightly bigger than yours.” Firth chuckled, “Which is scary since I’m almost a foot taller’n you.”
“Heh. Anyway we guess he’ll be big like us prolly in, uh, maybe five years, assuming me and ‘Base slow down soon cuz’ of calorie and frame limits. Hell, maybe he’ll be even bigger!”
Powell folded his arms and sat back, studying them side by side. His eyes settled on Firth. “Three of you? And Firth even bigger? You appreciate that’s a mite fookin’ alarming, technical sergeant.”
Firth gave a truly wolffish grin. “Yup. Imma be the fuckin’ biggest, baddest motherfucker to ever live an’ these two are gonna be my posse!”
John nodded with a pleased expression and Adam grinned his puppy-grin.
“But, can I be honest, since I’m already sharin’ everything?”
“I’m…really glad I met these two. I can honestly say that since I was thirteen I was the biggest, strongest, meanest dude in any situation I found myself in.” He shrugged, “I won’t lie, that’s been pretty awesome. But, y’know what? It’s really nice knowing there are people that can kick my fuckin’ ass, sir. I think I need that.”
The three sat awkwardly for a moment while Firth radiated deep, genuine happiness. One thing’s for sure, deception wasn’t Firth’s strong suit. If he said something, he meant it, and he generally meant it with as much intensity as it was possible for a human being to feel.
Powell cleared his throat by way of segue. “Right…well. Enthusiasm is all well and good, but do us a solid and don’t engage in such, ah, vigorous training without prior advice from now on. Realism’s good an’ all, but the less we abuse the Crue-D the better. Don’t want to risk buildin’ up resistance too early.”
“Lovely. Now I believe you have an appointment with the lady’s barracks…”
“…yes, sir.” He grinned ruefully, stood up and left.
Powell next turned his attention to the Protectors. “I’m gonna need you to draw up some safety protocols. One o’ these days, at this rate we’ll be lookin’ at a training injury that’s a bit less tractable’n broken ribs, lads.”
“And bruised kidneys.”
“Aye. All the more reason to get some initial guidance drawn up by tomorrow. Go talk to the medical staff, make it happen. Dismissed.”
They nodded, and left.
But even through that all, Powell couldn’t help but smile to himself. His lads all had spirit and it was the best kind: enthusiastic and willing. With some proper boundaries, and a good pre-brief on whatever task was before them…
Well. It was certainly good training.