Over the last week, there has been a truly shocking development in my writing career: In the interests of testing my abilities on something new and different, I wrote a romance film fan fic. To make up for it and at the same time try out what I came up with in something more my speed, I decided to write a “demo” for an odd notion of a project that came from reader feedback: In essence, it has been suggested to me (I think maybe by more than one person!) that I try doing more with females in the “Exotroopers” franchise. I never saw this as especially workable, as the only female character ever to recur is Martinez (who was supposed to have been one of a pair of witches who appear way back in Walking Dead), and the prevailing themes and atmosphere has always fallen solidly in “superjock” territory. I don’t care for introducing new characters, either, particularly since one of the things I find most appealing about writing for the Exotroopers is that they are supposed to stay the same story to story. Still, I gave it enough thought to envision a way to make it work, and at long last I felt ready to try at least a preliminary vignette for this project, working title “XX EXOTROOPERS!”
Lt. Princip, chief instructor of the exotrooper corps, stood in full battle armor to meet the candidates, complete with the barbed-wire crown of thorns that adorned the pyramidal peak of his helmet. Beside him were Lt. Albert Zaratustra Schwartz, aka Zed, Acting Sergeant Zotgjakt, and a woman named Juanita Martinez. All of them were also in armor: Zed wore a crown of rebar rods on his helmet, Zotgjakt was in the heavier exoskeleton of a tank destroyer, and Martinez wore the light exoskeleton of a squire support trooper, minus helmet. She served in the corps in a squire’s capacity, but her real station was as a high-ranking official of Serbia’s bioweapons program, and semi-official handler to Zed.
“A thousand candidates were screened from the military forces of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as others from abroud,” Martinez said. “These candidates were deemed worthy of consideration.” Princip examined them, all three of them, and all of them women.
After a moment’s examination, he pointed at one. “Can we even fit her in the base chassis?” The woman was 1.5 meters tall in combat boots, and did not look to be a day over twenty or one gram over 45 kilos.
“It would take modification,” Zotgjakt said, “but we have done more for less.”
“That is Senka,” Martinez said. “She is credited with 35 combat kills, 13 of which were made without use of a firearm. She was also recently cleared of wrongdoing in the stabbing of three Montenegrin soldiers.” Senka, whose name meant “shadow”, smiled and blew Zed a kiss. Then she pulled down her jacket sleeve to expose not less than half a dozen perfectly straight scars on her arm. Zed raised a steel prosthesis that stuck out from his four-fingered right fist in unspoken reply.
Princip shook his head, but looked to the others. “She could be promising,” he said, eying a heavy-set woman on the end.
“That is Nana Papos,” Martinez said. “She is a skilled mechanic and rated to drive IFV’s.”
“My people have a saying, that a woman is made for bearing,” Zotgjakt said. “She looks like she was made for bearing Zastavas.”
A third candidate was of more ordinary proportions, about 1.7 meters tall and on the subtly muscular side. “She is Sgt. Dragoslava Lazarevic, nicknamed the Dragon,” Martinez said. “She is a decorated sniper with 75 confirmed combat kills. I am given to understand that she is a person of interest in a number of others. ”
Princip shrugged. “No need to discuss that for the moment,” he said. “Our concern is and remains, is there any way to fit these- personnel into a combat unit?”
“It was proposed that I take command,” Martinez said. “I have made it clear that I have no wish for such a station. I have too many other duties to handle the responsibilities of command, and, as high command itself is finally recognizing, the responsibilities and skill sets of a squire and a finback are not interchangeable. If and when I am to serve the corps, I can do it best as the former.” She did not add that the position of a squire was the best one in which to monitor Zaratustra.
“Integration can be achieved quite simply,” Zaratustra said. “We have a prospective squad with no officer. I am an officer currently without a squad. I will evaluate them, and if I am satisfied of their worth, I will take them as my command.”
The woman called Dragon stepped forward. “We are all Serb officers, and you are a psychotic foreigner they pulled from the prisons,” she said. “What should we have to do to prove our worth to you?”
The finback known as the Flea tore into the main training room of the exotrooper base. “Guys! Hey guys!” he shouted. His partner the Tick halted practice with a sour grunt, and the tank destroyer Sunflower looked up from sharpening a sword made from a helicopter rotor. “Zed’s about to fight some chick! Without armor!”
The space had been a large jail cell, with concrete walls at the rear and on the right side. The Flea and the Tick chatted as they watched, while Sunflower stood silently beside Martinez, occasionally giving her a brief but soulful glance. Princip stood with his arms sternly crossed, and Zotgjakt looked in through a window at the rear. The woman mechanic and the Dragon were on either side of Princip. It was the little “shadow” who faced Zed inside the cell, and she was smiling.
“Well, I say, a woman can pummel a man as well as a man,” the Flea said.
“No, a woman can pummel you as well as a man,” the Tick countered. “And as far as I’m concerned, the jury is out on what Zed is.”
Even out of armor, Zed was huge, easily 1.8 meters high yet with a distinctly stout figure. He wore a tight black jumpsuit, and his head was shaved and pale as any exotrooper’s would be. For him, however, bald and white seemed to fit naturally. He still had the prosthesis that replaced the third finger of his right hand, but it was heavily sheathed in duct tape and rubber. “Listen to me, very carefully,” he said in his deep but rasping voice. “My men are under express orders to do nothing to intervene. It will be us, and us alone. These shall be the terms: We shall test our strength and skill against each other with hands, feet and skill. No attempt shall be made to appropriate any other weapon. At a time of my choosing, I shall try to kill you. It will not be a test or a feint. If you can stop me or escape me, you shall win. If you fail, you shall fail. Do you accept these terms?”
“Hey!” the Flea shouted, “hey, he totally, seriously means it!”
Senka nodded, and grinned. “Then I swear,” Zed said, “by all the gods that are or never were, that it shall be as I have said.”
He extended a hand, and Senka shook. She was still shaking when she kicked him in the crotch with a steel-toed boot. It was clear from the sound that contact was direct, forceful and prolonged. The Flea groaned and covered his visor, and the Tick muttered, “Beginner’s mistake…”
There was no hint of pain on Zed’s face. He let her hand go free as if clutching for himself, but it awe only to catch hold of his adversary’s calf, even as her foot continued to dig in. She screamed, not for mercy but only in sheer, wordless terror as he lifted her up. He did not throw her, but hoisted her up to swing her straight down at the floor with velocity that was assuredly terminal. At the last split second, Zed jerked her back and dropper her on a bed. “Try again,” he said. “I can wait.”
Shadow grinned like a shark. Her gaze sized up every angle. She knew he had allowed her to land the kick, just to prove a point. She still did not believe his speed and reflexes were equal to hers, but she would not have bet on it for a fact, which was a rare thing indeed, and he certainly had the advantage in every physical respect. She was especially concerned with the long reach of his almost ape-like arms. Even his fingers were surprisingly long, and clearly no less powerful for it. In a handful of seconds, she drew the only conclusion that mattered: The odds of besting him fairly, even in a single pass, were virtually non-existent.
So, she sprang into the air. Zed’s right fist shot back, ready to meet her as she came hurtling at him. Instead, she flipped backward, and her boot heel smashed a fluorescent light fixture. There was a bright flash at the level of his eyes, and he lurched back with a cry. Still, he raised his arms in a perfect attack stance, but Shadow came low, slashing for his hip with a blade that had sprouted from the toe of her left boot. The Flea pointed and shouted, heedless of a smack from the Tick. Zed was already moving back, and it looked like he might be fast enough. Princip lunged forward. But before he could shout the order for Zed to stop the fight as he wrenched the cell door off its hinges, Zotgjakt put his fist straight through the wall and jerked Shadow back.
The finbacks were still shouting as they burst into the training room. “Of course I knew of the concealed blade,” Zed said. He went straight to a chassis no one else would have dreamed of touching. “It was obvious from her insteps that one boot was different from the other, and I easily spotted signs of the modification.” He began to put on the torso armature, with help from Zotgjakt.
“Nevertheless, you were caught unprepared,” Princip said. “We know better than anyone, leg wounds are serious business. You could have been crippled, even killed.”
“Precisely!” Zed said, jabbing his prosthesis at the ceiling. He pulled an armored gauntlet over the lattice-like armature of the fingers, while Zotgjakt made the last tweaks to the primary shoulder servo. “I would want nothing less from my new command!” With that, he turned and delivered a backhanded slap that sent Zotgjakt unresisting to the floor.