Shadow Hunter Training

This is another one that was  previously published in Tim Rodriguez’s Pendragon ‘Zine.  It also features one of the RPG characters that I return to, in some form or another again and again.  For that matter, he is the main character of the fictional universe that unites most of my writing.  I am a shameless recycler and hate to see anything I create go to waste.  If you’re read one of my two novels, you’ll recognize Shadow Hunter.  And you can expect to see him again, in the future.

 

Shadow Hunter disliked his new teacher almost from the moment he first saw the man. Shenendril was slender and pale and Shadow Hunter felt certain that he cold snap the elf in two with very little effort. His teacher’s face was thin and long with prominent cheek bones and an overly soft mouth. Shenendril’s clothing was ridiculously ornate with a great deal of embroidery, lace and meaningless folds and buttons. To Shadow Hunter’s admittedly unschooled eyes the outfit looked distinctly feminine. Everything about the elf seemed pampered, spoiled and soft. Shadow Hunter wondered briefly what Sk’Tash might have thought he could learn about fighting from this girlish man.

That is, until he saw the way the man moved. Shadow Hunter had been on the field of battle often enough and faced enough opponents to know when a man could fight and kill and when he could not. He could see through the pompous swaggering of a noble who wanted to be a warrior as easily as he could the false bravado of a scared youth. It was clear from the graceful, confident way Shenendril walked and carried himself that he knew the limitations of his own body and how to push himself beyond those limitations. When he drew nearer and Shadow Hunter could see his face, he recognized the hard, calm look of a person who had killed and would kill again if necessary in Shenendril’s eyes. Despite his outlandish appearance Shadow Hunter knew that he was no fop.

“So, you are my new student,” the elf said with obvious disdain before he sipped something from a golden, etched goblet that he picked up from a table that also supported numerous weapons of a wide variety. He appeared as bored with the contents of the goblet as he did with the weapons on the table and the young man standing in the courtyard with him.

After setting down the goblet, he began turning up the cuffs of his shirt, careful not to tear the lace that decorated them. “What backwater did they find you on? Or do you even know what the proper name for it is?” he asked.

“Vel,” Shadow Hunter answered curtly. Though the wonders the Ravnivori possessed boggled the mind and they were clearly far advanced beyond the simple society and technology of his home world, he didn’t like it being referred to in such insulting terms.

“Ah. So you do know, Perhaps there is hope for you,” Shenendril replied, looking shocked that his new student was aware of anything. With his sleeves now rolled up to his elbows he examined Shadow Hunter again for a time. “But, somehow I doubt it. I’m surprised they even managed to get you into a decent set of clothes. I know how you primitives enjoy prancing around in little more than your skins. While it can be entertaining when your feral women do it, I’m glad that they’ve managed to instill the decency in you to cover yourself properly.”

Shadow Hunter’s fists clenched as he was tempted to test his theory that he could break the man with his bare hands. There had been a few other people who had spoken to him so contemptuously because of where he was from since he’d come to the city, but he’d often convinced them with word or fists that it was a mistake to underestimate him. Or course, his often violent responses generally only reinforced what they believed about him, but at least he felt better afterwards.

It only made matters worse that Shenendril’s barbs were not far from their mark. While Shadow Hunter was grateful for the heavy clothes he’d been given when the chill of night filled the air, he itched to be rid of him. The sleeves of his shirt and coat felt like bindings intended to restrain his natural movement. He longed for the freedom of the simple breeches that he’d worn since childhood.

“Aw…I’ve upset you,” Shenendril continued mockingly. In addition to his other talents, he was also, annoyingly, a good judge of character. “Well, perhaps a little exercise will help calm your nerves. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even get a chance to make me pay for insulting you. Come, get a weapon so you can take your chance.”

He picked up two of the spears that were leaning against the table, holding one casually in his left hand, the shaft balanced lightly on his shoulder. He offered the other weapon to Shadow Hunter, who waited a moment before stalking over to snatch it out of his grip. But as he reached out to grab the weapon from Shenendril’s hand the elf dropped it with a smirk. Shadow Hunter lurched forward gracelessly to make a grab for the weapon but fumbled with it before it slipped from his grip and fell into the grass at Shenendril’s ornately buckled, high heeled, well polished boots.

“It looks like I have my work cut out for me if I’m going to train you. You can’t even keep your weapon in your hands. How can I hope to teach you to wield it properly?” Shenendril’s laughing taunt sent a molten rage through Shadow Hunter, filling his chest and stomach until he thought they might burst.

Snatching up the weapon, he fought down the urge to simply stab the man right then and there. His patron and sponsor, Sk’Tash believed there was something this person could teach him and he owed the Saurian too much to disappoint him in a fit of temper. Besides, he suspected that the elf, despite his pompous attitude and foppish garments might be able to train him as well.

Instead, he simply straightened up and waited for Shenendril’s next words with clenched jaw. The elf was clearly bored by the whole situation and did not speak for several seconds. In fact, he eyed the goblet on the table apparently contemplating taking another drink rather than worrying about the man standing nearby with a weapon.

“Well? I’m waiting. Attack me. I’d like to see if there is any skill and understanding behind those brutish eyes or if I’d be better off trying to train a monkey,” the elf finally said, exasperation heavy in his voice.

The goading did nothing to increase Shadow Hunter’s anger, but the permission was all that he needed. Taking a tight grip on the haft of his spear, he lunged forward with a growl, aiming a stab straight for Shenendril’s gut. The jab would likely not kill the man, especially with the healing abilities he knew the Imperials had, but it would hurt a great deal and might leave the elf in agony for hours.

It appeared that Shenendril didn’t even see the attack coming but he moved subtly, his left arm and wrist twisting. The small movement had a great effect, though and the haft of his spear shot down, deflecting the point of Shadow Hunter’s weapon wildly off target. The Possessed man’s momentum drew him forward and past the elf and before he could regain his balance he felt a sharp pain in his side.

For a moment, he was certain his teacher had stabbed him in turn. It seemed in character for the elf. Shenendril would no doubt injure him simply to prove that he could. Shadow Hunter quickly realized that he wasn’t bleeding, though and the pain was simply the effect of having the blunt butt of Shenendril’s spear rammed into his kidney. Still, the pain was enough to make his knees weak and he stumbled and almost fell before steadying himself.

“Amazing,” Shenendril said with mock surprise. “You are even clumsier than you led me to believe. I don’t think I have to fight you at all. If I just watch you for a few minutes, you’ll trip and fall on your own spear. I won’t have to get mine dirty. How is it you have not killed yourself before now?”

“Shut up!” Shadow Hunter shouted as he spun to face the elf. “I’m going to mount your flapping tongue on the tip of this spear and then we’ll see if you can create such clever barbs.”

He did not rush blindly forward again but rather moved toward his opponent much more carefully. When he was within range, he thrust his spear at the elf’s face like a bolt of lightning, the weapon a blur of motion and death. Again, Shenendril hardly moved but managed to deflect his attack without the slightest hint of effort.

Shadow Hunter jabbed again and again, seeking out any gap in his teacher’s defenses. In desperation, he even attacked all but meaningless targets like Shenendril’s feet, but was no more successful than his attempts to strike something vital.

His frustration and confusion grew with each passing minute. He was no neophyte, after all. He’d been in numerous battles and defeated dozens of foes in the tribal conflicts on his home world. Many opponents had died at his hands and he’d never been beaten. His reputation extended far and wide back home and only the bravest or most foolhardy warriors voluntarily faced him.

In fact, quite a few members of the Imperial Army fell to his prowess when they first arrived to conquer his world as well. Even they began to fear him as they spread across the world. Then the fateful day came when he killed one of the soldiers near Sk’Tash and the spirit that possessed the Ravnivori Saurian sensed something special in Shadow Hunter. No one understood what made the Daemons that gave the Possessed their powers choose a new host for their offspring or the process that occurred when they sent a splinter of themselves to reside in a new host.

Whatever the reasons and methods, though, Shadow Hunter was now one of the Possessed, the elite of the Ravnivori Empire, completely ageless and capable of becoming more powerful with every person he killed and every soul the daemon that shared his body claimed. He was stronger, faster and tougher than he’d ever been and he was only going to get better.

For all his abilities, however, the best he could do against Shenendril was force him once to step to the side to avoid one of his many blows. Every other thrust and swing he made was deflected by the elf with only the barest hint of effort.

Without a moment’s warning, Shenendril lashed out in return, the haft of his spear swinging in a vicious arc that whistled as it cleaved the air. Too late, Shadow Hunter moved to thrust his own spear between the elf’s weapon and his legs in a failed attempt to protect himself from the blow.

The wood struck him at the knees and lifted him off the ground. There was an instant where he was completely free of the ground before he thumped violently onto his back. He barely managed to keep his grip on his weapon as the air exploded from his lungs and the shock of the impact jolted his whole body. Before he could even gasp to begin replacing his escaped breath, Shenendril was over him. He drew his spear back and Shadow Hunter had only a moment to realize his intent and know that he was about to die.

The elf’s weapon shot down, aimed straight for Shadow Hunter’s heart and he felt the first sting of pain as steel parted flesh. Instinct made him grab for the haft, though he knew it was too late to stop the blow.

But, sting was all that the spear did. The blow was deadly accurate and the point of the weapon was on a course to slip between his ribs and cleave his heart in two, but Shenendril did not complete the thrust. Instead he withdrew his weapon, leaving Shadow Hunter with only a shallow gouge on his chest that still began to bleed freely.

Indolently, Shenendril moved back to the table and picked up the goblet he’d left there. He took a long gulp of the liquid inside as Shadow Hunter climbed painfully to his feet and dabbed his fingers against the wound on his chest. A jolt of pain punctuated the ache that lingered there at the touch and the blood flowing from it would ruin the new clothing his patron had given him. He was surprised to find that the wound was relatively minor, though and there was no risk of it becoming fatal or permanently damaging. He likely wouldn’t even have a scar.

“Your form and technique are pathetic,” Shenendril said, swirling the contents of the goblet around and examining them before taking another drink. He did not deign to look at Shadow Hunter. “Maybe that wild flailing was effective against the other barbarians back on your home world, but any decently trained warrior would cut you to shreds in a minute. You are Possessed now, a scion of the Ravnivori Empire and, as such, you will learn to fight properly, like a Ravnivori. You will learn skill and efficiency when the time comes for you to go to war in the name of the empire.”

Shadow Hunter was contemplating attacking the elf again, but somehow doubted he would get any better result than he had so far. Still, the temptation was powerful. Shenendril had insulted not only his own abilities but also everyone from his home. He wanted nothing more than to erase that smug, bored look from the elf’s face with the tip of his spear.

“Do you understand me?” Shenendril continued, impatiently. “Or have I used words that your primitive mind is incapable of comprehending? Do I need to speak slower?”

“I understand you perfectly,” Shadow Hunter managed to answer through gritted teeth.

“Good. We’ll see what else you are capable of understanding.” The elf put his goblet down and strode toward Shadow Hunter. Expecting an attack, the latter tensed and gripped his spear with both hands.

“There’s no need for such dramatics,” Shenendril said dismissively when he saw Shadow Hunter’s reaction. “It should be obvious that if I wanted to hurt you there wouldn’t be anything you could do to stop me, anyway.”

Shadow Hunter glared at the man, but he could not argue with the logic and had he thought to protest the pain in his chest would have been a good reminder of the futility of such an act. Nonetheless, he did not relax. This man had hurt him both physically and mentally and he certainly didn’t trust him.

“First, your grip is all wrong,” Shenendril said. “You’re holding your spear as though it were a club that you were going to use to batter some beast to death. Don’t clench it, grip it.”

He grasped Shadow Hunter’s hands, making him tense even more. For a moment, Shadow Hunter flinched away but then slowly extended his arms forward. Shenendril pried his fingers off the spear and then replaced them gently on the haft. “Like this. Tight enough so that it won’t slip free but loose enough that you have some flexibility in your movements. Now, you need to find the balance point of the weapon and always know where it is.”

Slowly, Shenendril showed him everything he was doing wrong from the way he gripped the weapon to how he stood and even how quickly he attacked. By the end of the hours that followed, Shadow Hunter wondered how he’d never been killed in battle before now. It was clear that he was too ignorant about the arts of fighting to even understand how much he didn’t know. Compared to Shenendril’s knowledge and skill Shadow Hunter realized he actually was a neophyte.

Shadow Hunter came to realize that the spear was such a crude weapon in his hands. Granted, it just gave him extra reach and the point allowed him to do more damage to his opponents. But in Shenendril’s hands it was a complex and intricate tool of destruction. He used it in ways that Shadow Hunter had never imagined and the weapon became a deadly part of the elf. Despite his dislike for the man, Shadow Hunter longed to learn all that he could from him. He wanted to be just as dangerous with the weapon as the elf was. In fact, he wanted to be more dangerous. He wanted to be able to beat his teacher with the weapon.

The sun was setting, the light around them changing to the strange, deceptive grey of evening when Shenendril finished his lessons and said “Try again, now that you are beginning to understand.”

Shadow Hunter readied himself, trying to remember everything the elf had taught him in the last several hours. There was so much, he was certain he would forget something. In fact, he suspected he would forget most of it and have to learn it again and again. He also knew that only so much of a skill like this could be taught through words. He had to experiment with the methods shown him and the best way to do that was through combat, whether real or mock.

His first thrust was even clumsier than the first time he attacked Shenendril. His mind tried to use the new techniques that he’d been taught while his body reverted to the old methods he’d used with the end result being that neither actually worked. The elf did not even bother to block the blow, but simply twitched his head to the side to completely avoid the attack.

To Shadow Hunter’s suprise, he also did not have any chiding, derisive remarks for the failed attack, though. Instead, he simply waited in silence until Shadow Hunter’s next attempt. The jab required him to deflect it with the haft of his own spear, though again a simple flick of his wrist did the job. The next attack was even closer and they came more rapidly and accurately as Shadow Hunter began to gain experience using what Shenendril had taught him and confidence in the lesson’s effectiveness.

The clatter of wood striking wood filled the air in the courtyard as the light continued to slowly fail with the closing of the day. Every crack was the sound of Shenendril deflecting or blocking one of Shadow Hunter’s strikes and was the noise of success as far as the Possessed man was concerned. The two men engaged in a dangerous dance that could turn instantly deadly with a single misjudgment or misplaced move.

One of the many advantages that the Daemon that shared Shadow Hunter’s body provided was the ability to see clearly in much dimmer light than any normal human could. Even as the twilight faded into true night, he could still plainly make out Shenendril and his weapon. Fortunately, Shenendril’s elven eyes were at least as keen as his own and the two continued to spar as night drew in around them.

After one close particularly close call, Shenendril went on the offensive. No longer did he simply block and evade Shadow Hunter’s attacks. He began to fight back, the head of his spear easily darting through Shadow Hunter’s defenses and cutting a thin trail of blood along his side with the first thrust. The change in tactics took the Possessed man by surprise but he adapted quickly, at least partially because some of Shenendril’s training had taken hold.

He could only defend himself and give ground for a time, backing away from the elf and narrowly avoiding being skewered several times. Even with his defensive posture and the fresh training Shenendril had given him, he was left with several more shallow wounds and the beginnings of numerous bruises as the elf was as likely to use the butt of his weapon against him as to stab him with the point.

Shadow Hunter managed to get a few counterstrikes in, though no one would claim that the combat was anything but one sided. As they continued to spar the light became so dim that he could hardly see what was happening and more than once he was made aware of a successful attack by his opponent by the pain it caused rather than seeing it coming.

“You’re watching my spear,” the trainer declared with a surprising amount of disdain.

Shadow Hunter thought that was perfectly reasonable given the situation. “The spear is trying to hurt me,” he answered.

“No, I’m what’s trying to hurt you. The spear is just the tool I’m going to use to do it. Watch me and you will know where the spear is going. Watch it and you will only know where it is.”

Shadow Hunter considered that advice completely foolish, until he noticed Shenendril was taking his own advice. His unreadable eyes flicked subtly and quickly but followed his motions and not the motions of his spear. Despite that, he always seemed to know where Shadow Hunter’s weapon was going to be before it got there.

Slowly, he adopted the advice, focusing on Shenendril. At least until the other man’s spear flashed by his face so close that he could feel the breeze as it passed. That shining point was all he could think about for several minutes and he could not pull his attention away from it.

That concentration only seemed to make things worse and the progress he thought he’d been making slipped out of his grasp. Once more, he was narrowly avoiding being skewered at every turn.

Finally, Shenendril called for a halt. To punctuate the command, the elf thrust his spear forward, entangling it with Shadow Hunter’s and gave a twist that sent the Possessed’s weapon flying despite the firm grip he had. Before he could even think to retrieve the weapon, another swing of the elf’s spear caught him in the knees and he once more found himself with his back on the ground.

“Not bad, barbarian,” Shenendril said and Shadow Hunter thought he could detect the faintest hint of breathlessness in the elf. He also noticed that the elf was leaning more than casually on his spear as he planted it in the ground near Shadow Hunter’s head. The possibility that he had tired his teacher out at least left him with some satisfaction and a redoubled desire to learn until he could best the man.

“Perhaps there truly is hope for you. Next time, we’ll use the blunted spears…just in case,” Shenendril continued a bit too casually. “After all, death is but a matter of a moment. One instant a man is alive, the next he is gone. And dealing that death takes only a moment as well. One stroke of the blade or a simple flick of the finger if there is a gun involved and a life that spans decades or centuries of life is over in the blink of an eye. Perhaps you could get very lucky and end the glorious story of my life. A very sad idea when you contemplate it.”

Just then, the moon peeked over the wall of the courtyard, bathing it in faint silver light. Thanks to his Daemon, even that dim illumination was enough to allow Shadow Hunter to see as well as if it were the middle of a cloudy day. And, it was just enough light for him to see a small gash in Shenendril’s clothes. It was not deep enough to break the elf’s skin, but Shadow Hunter swelled with pride at seeing that he’d actually managed to hit his trainer. It also explained why Shenendril wanted to use the blunted spears. Not only was Shadow Hunter now good enough to potentially land a lucky and dangerous blow against his teacher, but also Shenendril would no doubt have to stop pulling his attacks to maintain a distinctly upper hand.

Of course, Shenendril said nothing about either of these possibilities. “Be here again in the morning and we’ll see if I can do anything more with you or if you have simply gotten lucky today,” he said, instead, turning away from Shadow Hunter and returning his spear to its spot on the table.

He scooped up his goblet and drained what remained in it as he sauntered away, leaving Shadow Hunter lying on the grass in the pale moonlight without a backwards glance.

Sk’Tash passed the elf as he came in and the two men gave each other small bows before the reptilian humanoid approached his young protégé. His amber, slitted eyes rested emotionlessly on Shadow Hunter.

“Not many smile after a training session with Shenendril,” he said his voice thick and his mouth straining, as usual to shape the words of the humans. “He must have gone easy on you.”

“Perhaps, milord,” Shadow Hunter replied as he hauled himself to his feet. “Or perhaps only a few of his students understand what it is that he teaches them.”

Egg Drop

Link

Here’s a little something I wrote up to try to get published in one of the online scifi mags.  It didn’t work.  Though Tim Rodriguez over at Brooklyn Indie Games was kind enough to print a couple of my stories in his Pendragon Zine.  If you don’t know Tim, you should check him out.  He’s a brilliant game designer and game master and some of my best memories from various Fear the Cons include him.  He was also kind enough to give me my first paid writing gig, creating scenarios for his awesome OmegaZone game.

Go to http://brooklynindiegames.com/ now and check him out..then come back and read this.

Colonel Murphy would never admit it to anyone but he found the lightshow created by a Orbital Insertion Pod drop beautiful. Even in the light of day, the pods left bright lines sweeping across the sky as the pods entered the atmosphere and the heat created by that entry converted to light.

He kept the pleasure he felt at seeing that beauty tightly contained, his face displaying no emotion. Joy was not an expression an officer of the Colonial Military should display while on duty. A few of the other observers were new to this and he even managed to hide his disdain as they flinched at the booms that occurred as the pods finished their plummets and struck the planet closer to the spectator bunker. Even with the braking jets and parachutes the impacts were fierce and more than one entrenched location had been destroyed by that collision even before the trooper contained within stepped out of the pod.

It was not too long after the streaks stopped lighting up the sky that the first of those troopers wandered into the rally zone. Half of them had a haunted look about their eyes and flinched at every noise and slightest motion around them. The other half were just as wide eyed and keyed up but had the frenetic expression of a satisfied daredevil about them. Every one of them was shaky and not a few of them stumbled as they entered the rally zone.

Murphy had seen enough of these training exercises that he no longer bothered being furious and offended that not a single one of them entered the area correctly. In fact, a shocking number of them did not have their weapons. None of them came in with their weapons up. Many of them jogged into the area instead of with the careful steps of a person expecting combat.

Only one out every handful of first drops had a person who remembered their combat training after the pods hit the ground. For that matter, he was not proud of the fact and was happy that no one knew that he had stumbled into the rally spot completely unarmed during his own egg drop. After all, it was a mental shock to everyone to be shot out of a dreadnought’s missile tube and into the upper atmosphere of a planet with nothing more than a few inches of carbon tube plating and heat resistant panels between a person and being incinerated in a fiery death.

Of course, most of the pods were insulated well enough that the occupants did not feel that heat. Those that did not have the appropriate insulation were repaired or retired long before it became and issue and less than one percent of troopers were cooked inside that high tech shell.

What was far more distressing to the average occupant of one of the pods were the motions they were subjected to. The atmosphere was not one homogenous thing but rather a swirling mass of ever moving gasses that were thicker and thinner at different points. Passing through it at faster than the speed of sound translated to a bone rattling, brain jarring ride that, even with being securely strapped in and pumped full of anti-motion sickness drugs often left a would be trooper vomiting violently on the way down or after he hit the ground. Those candidates washed out before they could wash up.

And there was a reason why Orbital Insertion Pods were often called the most expensive coffins in the galaxy. The interior space was uncomfortably small and tight, the occupant strapped in tightly so that the turbulence would not fling a hand, foot, or limb against one of the hard interior surfaces and leave the trooper with a broken finger or toe that would hinder his combat capabilities.

Add to that the fact that the interiors were dark as often and not. There were dim lights in the pod, but they often failed due to the rigors the pod undertook. Not a few potential troopers were left gibbering or shrieking idiots because of the extremely claustrophobic 15 minutes or so that it took a pod to fall through the atmosphere. And, the anti-nausea medication was the only thing they got. Early in the program, troopers had also been giving anti-anxiety drugs, but it was quickly determined that their combat effectiveness was reduced by the calm that the drugs imposed on the people under their influence.

The mere fact that the men gathered below were psychologically and physically tough enough to climb out of their pods and make their way to the rally point meant they were a rarity. The fact that they were also the best members of the various armed forces meant that it would not take their trainers long to hammer their combat training back into them until they were even better at being assault combatants than they were before they became drop troopers. They were not the best of the best yet, but it was Murphy and his fellow trainers’ job to ensure they would be soon enough.

And that was why the egg drop came so early in Orbital Insertion Pod training. Being elite didn’t mean a thing if a soldier could not successfully undergo the rigors of a drop. These men had only been here a week, just long enough for the trainers to make sure that they were actually good enough combatants to deserve the chance of becoming drop troopers and for them to learn the basics of the drop pods. Not a few of the men washed up before ever getting into a pod and it would be a waste to bother with any more training for those left if they could not perform a successful drop.

Some people thought it was called an “egg drop” because of the rounded teardrop shape of the pods. But all of the trainers were drop troopers themselves. They had as much faith in the pods as they did any piece of technology they used and little fear they would fail. In fact, the pods were more reliable than a lot of the other hardware the military was expected to depend upon. No, this inaugural landing was called an egg drop because they were seeing if the men inside those pods were going to crack.

Five minutes after the last candidate entered the rally point and that meant that it was time for them to go pick up the stragglers. Invariably, some of the potential troopers got lost or injured or trapped in their pods and very rarely, one died. Murphy’s stomach clenched as he noticed that Cragger was one of those stragglers.

The colonel could not remember the last time he’d seen a more promising candidate. Drop trooper trainers got too much tail to have anything left over to waste on a wet dream but if they did have them, Cragger would be one.

The man wasn’t the biggest of this group of candidates, but he was one of the strongest and was definitely the toughest. He’d let out not the smallest complaint about any of the rigorous training exercises the group had been put through and not a few of the men who were considered elite members of their military branches had fainted, quit or even broken down weeping from the physical and mental strain.

Cragger was one of the better marksmen and was easily the best hand to hand combatant. He’d demonstrated a savage efficiency when it came to injuring and killing his opponents. He was no mindless brute, though and while he was also no master strategist, his grasp of personal and small unit tactics was impressive.

Putting it in simplest terms, Cragger was a born soldier, a weapon r created by the hand of God and gifted to the Colonial Military to smite their enemies.

It would be just Murphy’s luck for the man to get a bad drop pod end up a scattered collection of vaporized molecules because of failed heat shielding or a smear across the countryside because of malfunctioning braking jets or parachutes. Hoping against all evidence that there was nothing wrong, the Colonel mounted up on the half track command vehicle waiting nearby with one of the other trainers and took a seat as the remaining trainers addressed the men who’d gathered in the rally zone below.

Of course, the fact that they all expected the men to come staggering into the rally point shell-shocked did not mean that they let it go. The lovely sounds of a sound dressing down filled Murphy’s ears as the private at the controls started the vehicle and they were soon humming along over the irregular countryside. Another private monitored the electronics that were in contact with the telemetry from the various pods. A multi-wheeled mini MASH unit followed in their wake, ready to provide first aid to any of the drop troopers who needed it.

Each of the Orbital Insertion Pods used during a training drop had a radio beacon in it. During a real insertion, there were almost no electronics in the pods. It reduced the chance of the enemy tracking the incoming pods and made it difficult to find them once they hit the ground. While it was hard to hide the pyrotechnics involved in a drop, it was almost impossible to hit one of the pods without electronic aid given how small they were and how fast they were moving.

It did not hurt the impressive psychological impact a drop had when the people it was being perpetrated on realized they could do little to stop it. After all, there was something inherently intimidating about facing a soldier who was willing to be dropped from orbit.

For a training drop, though, the beacons installed in every pod indicated where they were, whether or not it had opened, and any damage it had suffered in the drop. The satellite uplink between the hardware in the halftrack and the GPS sensors on the trainee’s uniforms also indicated whether or not the trooper assigned to any particular pod had made it to the rally point.

Murphy cast a glance over at the display, noting another of the little red numbers that corresponded to one of the troopers turn from red to green as the person arrived at the rally point. He was disappointed when he realized it was not Cragger’s number but rather belonged to one of the three women who’d made it this far. He wasn’t disappointed it was a woman, in fact McCoy was one of his best candidates. He was simply hoping that Craggers would show up at the rally point on his own power instead of them being forced to pry him out of his pod.

The small convoy worked their way out from the rally point to the closest pods that belonged to the individuals who had not made it, yet. The first pod they found had not opened at all, a malfunction keeping the door from unsealing.

The trooper inside showed impressive self control as one of the privates and a drill sergeant sprang the external, manual releases. His eyes were wide and starting but his cries for help were relatively controlled and followed the strictures given to them for just such emergencies. He simply repeated his name and the nature of his emergency. Those cries were pretty pointless, as the pods were all but sound proof, but it gave the troopers a way to counteract the helpless fear that would shake even the sturdiest of men and women when they realized they were trapped in a metal box. What they did didn’t help but at least it was something to do and had the weight of their trainers’ authority behind it.

The medics gave the man a cursory examination, quickly determining that there were no broken bones or damaged organs. The young man weathered his misfortune with such aplomb that he was able to ride in the open bed of the half-track instead of the MASH unit as they set out for the next pod. Murphy made a mental note to keep tabs on that one. A man who could keep his cool in an emergency like that was worth watching.

The next man was not quite so calm. The hatch of his pod had opened but the restraints had not released. He was thrashing wildly and howling, his face twisted with an animal fear. It was pointless, of course. Those restraints were essentially unbreakable. He would never get himself free. Much to his disgust, Murphy could see big, fat tears rolling down the man’s face.

That was not as bad as the next man. He had proved that his restraints actually weren’t unbreakable. Sometime during the descent they had failed. He was thankfully unconscious, knocked out from the pounding he took by being thrown around inside the pod. Murphy overheard the paramedics as they loaded him up in their MASH unit. Apparently, most of his bones were broken and he had a concussion.

The next pod was empty but the trooper was not at the rally point. The private altered the search parameters on his scanners and they found his GPS moving away from them.

To his credit, the candidate continued to jog, only casting a glance over his shoulder at them as they approached. Even when the half track drew up next to him, he kept his eyes forward and continued to jog.

“Goddammit, Tennyson, are you some kind of goddamn moron? The goddamn rally point is back that way,” Murphy shouted as he leaned out of the open side of the vehicle and jerked his thumb back the way they’d come.

“Sir! Yes, Sir!” Tennyson replied, gasping for breath. He turned smoothly and headed back in the correct direction.

Murphy got a little nervous as he realized that the last unopen pod was Cragger’s.

He grew more nervous as he noticed that the pod had not opened. They were supposed to spring open within moments after sensing impact but even if that mechanism did not work, there were internal manual fail safes. Either those had also malfunctioned or Cragger had been incapable of triggering them for some reason, whether physical or mental.

Murphy, in a very out of character gesture, approached the pod himself when they pulled up to it. He helped one of the privates trigger the outside locks.

Even as the pod opened like an enormous, strange flower, the colonel knew why Cragger had not made it to the rally point and was filled with disappointment.

The smell of vomit, urine and feces almost gagged him, telling him immediately that the man inside had lost control of his bodily functions.

The whimpers that came from the inside of the pod as light came into it told Murphy why he had lost control and he found himself surprisingly disappointed.

As the pod fully opened, Cragger’s whimpers turned into hoarse, terrified, maddened screams. His eyes were wide and goggling, rolling in their sockets wildly without seeing anything they passed over.

“Godammit,” Murphy muttered. Cool, calm and dangerous as Cragger might be with blood on his hands and bullets whipping past his head on the ground, it was obvious that the combination of tight space, radical motion and helplessness inherent in being a drop trooper was beyond his ability to cope.

“Get him out of there and off my training grounds,” the colonel growled in disgust, turning his back on the man in disappointment and stalking back to the halftrack.

The End

Exiles #15 Unicorn

Here’s the other half of one of the power (powered?) couples of the Exiles, though, they’re not a couple at the time that I’m leaving them at.  After all, you can’t have a Hawkeye without a Mockingbird.  If I’m honest, she’s probably the draw for me.  And, in a lot of ways, she seems a lot more competent that her husband.  She a master martial artist scientist spy.  He’s a guy who’s a really good shot.

And I was always entertained by their relationship.  It seemed a lot realer than most of the other marriages in the Marvel Universe.  They clearly loved each other and were infatuated with each other from the beginning but they had some severe differences of ideology and that lead to some serious conflicts in their relationship.  It was brought to a head by a crisis but it wasn’t the sort of super villain took over someone’s mind or someone got killed and came back as an avatar of destruction crisis that happens a lot in comics.  It was something most real life couples would never have to face but not one completely unlikely.

Speaking of that relationship, seeing Adrian Palicki play Mockingbird makes me even more baffled that DC couldn’t get a Wonder Woman show going with her in the title role.  In fact, my only quibble is that it’s a shame she’s playing Mockingbird.  Given her height, build and those legs, she would have made a killer She-Hulk.  I’m really hoping she either shows up in Age of Ultron or Hawkeye shows up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the episodes that follow.

And I was always fascinated by the Unicorn, though I never read a comic with him.  It was all from his profile in the Marvel Super Hero game.  His story seemed really tragic, the power horn seemed pretty cool.  But Unicorn always seemed like a girl’s persona to me.  I figured this was a good way to give Bobbi Morse some amped up abilities and give the Unicorn the gender I thought was correct.

Unicorn

Barbara “Bobbi” Morse-Barton

Fighting:     RM

Agility:      EX

Strength:     IN

Endurance: IN

Reason:       EX

Intuition:     GD

Psyche:       TY

Health:        80

Karma:       36

Resources:   TY

Popularity: 50

Powers:

 Body Armor: Unicorn’s skin and soft tissues are many times tougher than a normal human’s and provide her with Remarkable protection against physical damage.

 Equipment:

 Battle Staves: Unicorn employs a pair of special battle staves in combat that allow her to do the following things:

Used as javelins they can do Remarkable damage to any target up to 4

areas away.

Spring-loaded holsters fire the staves up to 3 areas to do Excellent

damage. She can catch them when they rebound by making an agiilty

Feat.

When joined together they form an 8-foot-long vaulting pole.

Power Horn: Unicorn’s main armament consists of an energy projector with variable settings. The power horn can inflict up to Monstrous damage.

Talents: Unicorn has trained extensively for combat. As such, she gains a +1 CS with her staves and a +1 CS to her Agility when Dodging. She also has Remarkable Reason in the fields of Biology, Law Enforcement, Detection and Espionage.

Contacts: Unicorn has worked with SHIELD, the Avengers, and especially Hawkeye. In fact, her Popularity is considered Monstrous when dealing with SHIELD, Interpol, and government security agencies.

Background: Barbara Morse graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with a Ph. D. in biology and passed her Civil Service examination so she could work with her biology professor, Dr. Wilma Calvin on the government-sponsored project to rediscover the Super-Soldier formula that created Captain America.

While in the government’s employ, Morse’s exemplary record came to the attention of SHIELD and she was invited to undertake training in her spare time. A champion gymnast in high school, Morse excelled at both the physical regiment and arts of espionage taught to all field agents.

When Dr. Theodore Sallis, a maverick scientist also working on the Super-Soldier project, disappeared, Morse was given her first field assignment; to accompany SHIELD agent Paul Allen, suspected of being a traitor, to the Savage Land in order to enlist the services of Ka-Zar to find Sallis. Allen and Morse Succeeded in contacting Ka-Zar and took him to the Florida Everglades.

Although Sallis was never found, Ka-Zar and Morse flushed out a splinter group of AIM agents who were attempting to steal the Super-Soldier formula and revealed Allen to be a member. At one point, Morse and Ka-Zar were trapped with little a sample of the serum. Unwilling to destroy a promising batch and uncertain of what would happen if they were captured, Morse injected herself with the formula.

It worked, though not in the same way the original serum did. Morse’s fighting ability and physical prowess were not enhanced, but her strength, stamina and durability were increased to superhuman levels. With Ka-Zar’s assistance, she was able to fight the AIM agents off.

The formula did not come without a price, though and Morse soon found herself subject to violent fits of rage. Fury was unwilling to allow her to endanger herself and others and sent her someplace where her outbursts would be little threat – back to the Savage Land.

Ka-Zar helped her deal with her savage emotions and the two became romantically involved. Even the seclusion of the Savage Land was not enough to escape the reach of civilization, however, and the couple found their land invaded and exploited by the Nth Command, a group of interdimensional raiders backed by several alternate Universe versions of the Roxxon Corporation. This group of Nth Commandos was lead by a former South American subversive known as el Tigre. It required the assistance of the Thing to stop the interdimensional depredations of the Nth Command in the Savage Land.

Bobbi and Ka-Zar tried to return to their relatively simple life together but AIM hatched a plot to abduct Bobbi in order to extract the Super Soldier Serum from her blood. Bobbi and Ka-Zar managed to foil the plot and vanquish the mercenary Klaw, who was leading the attempt. But, despite Ka-Zar’s protests, Bobbi realized that she would never be able to lead a peaceful life and that the civilized world would only continue to encroach on the Savage Land unless someone served as its protector outside.

Having largely come to grips with her occasional bouts of rage, she contacted Fury. Unsure if he could trust her, Fury offered to put her on a probationary return. Unsatisfied with this option, she instead went to work directly for the U.S. Government, with the job of rooting out subversives within SHIELD’s ranks. The U.S. Government believed SHIELD had been infiltrated due to a recent assassination of a star witness that seemed to be an inside job.

Taking on the costumed identity of the Huntress, she travelled to SHIELD’s Mexico City office and managed to expose corruption of local division chief Rico Santana. Form there, she continued her investigation, looting data-banks and compiling evidence of corruption in other divisional operations.

She renamed herself Mockingbird, based on an operation for the C.I.A. that involved Nick Fury before his recruitment by SHIELD. She planned on taking the evidence to Fury once she’d compiled enough.

While she was working in SHIELD’s Manhattan branch, the corrupt local director, Carl Delandan used the unwitting Spider-Man in an attempt to stop her. Delandan managed to destroy the flash drive she carried, but Mockingbird revealed his treachery to Nick Fury before she was shot by agents acting under Delandan’s orders. While she was recovering in a private hospital, and because of her investigation, Fury conducted a massive “housekeeping” sweep through SHIELD’s many divisions, exposing dozens of subversives within the ranks.

When Mockingbird was released from the hospital, she was decorated for her meritorious service and assigned to the European branch of SHIELD, where Fury suspected there was still some corruption. She was partnered with another agent, Milos Masrayk, a defector from Czechoslovakia and the costumed adventurer known as the Unicorn,. The two proved a good pair and were quite successful.

On several occasions, they saved each other’s lives and foiled plots by everyone from Russia’s Winter Guard to her old foes AIM. Though Milos was attracted to Bobbi, she did not share his feelings and their relationship remained purely professional.

Unfortunately, Masaryk was actually a double agent who had been working for the Von Strucker branch of HYDRA in return for the promise of a cure for the debilitating cellular degeneration that came as a side effect of the process that gave him his enhanced abilities. This only became evident to Bobbi when he betrayed and captured her.

Again, the Super Soldier Serum flowing through her veins was the target of her captors’ attention. In fact, the Von Strucker twins plan was to drain her blood entirely and transfuse it into themselves in the hopes of gaining her abilities.

Masaryk found himself on the edge of death, his cellular degeneration having reached a point almost of debilitation. He could not stand to watch Morse die and found evidence that HYDRA had been lying to him all along and that no one had been researching a cure for him.

Milos sacrificed himself both to save Bobbi and to bring down the Von Strucker branch of HYDRA. Mockingbird was left nearly dead herself but was rescued by SHIELD and found herself back in the hospital.

Shaken by her partner’s betrayal and uncertain of who to trust, she quit SHIELD and became a freelance adventurer. Bobbi was unable to deny the bond she had with Milos or the sacrifice he made for her at the end and took up his equipment and the mantle of the Unicorn as a way to honor him, nonetheless.

While investigating Cross Technological Enterprises for an unnamed client, she came into conflict with Hawkeye, who was working as CTE’s security director. The two soon learned that CTE was knowingly manufacturing the components for a machine designed to brainwash superhuman beings with ultrasonics. The two put aside their antagonism to join forces to thwart the machine’s contractor, Crossfire and his hirelings, Oddball and Bombshell.

Feeling a romantic attraction to Hawkeye, Unicorn proposed to him at the successful conclusion of the case and the two of them eloped. When Hawkeye was appointed leader of the new West Coast branch of the Avengers, Unicorn agreed to join him on the team.

When Hawekeye began seeking a way to increase his usefulness to the team, Bobbi suggested using Pym’s growth serum again. Barton agreed to the idea but did not discard his bow, though continuing to use it even in his increased size. Taking on the name “Ballista,” he continued as leader of the West Coast Avengers.

Continued exposure to Pym Particles made it ever more difficult for Ballista to return to his normal size and, eventually, the smallest he could become was 10’ tall. This put a strain on his relationship with Bobbi, not least of which because he blamed her for making the suggestion, in the first place.

Eventually, the friction between the pair became so great that they separated and Morse quit the team. Unicorn continued to adventure and Ballista continued to go on solo adventures and the paths of the two intersected when Judge, Jury and X-cutioner attempted to alter the timeline.

The Exiles were also involved, desperately trying to stop the villains from accidentally destabilizing their reality and destroying it. Between the Exiles and the reunited Ballista and Unicorn, they were able to stop Judge, Jury and X-cutioner but the two heroes native to the dimension were left in an unstable state. They were forced to join the Exiles on Otherworld to avoid their altered dimensional resonances from rippling out and finishing the work the villains began.

Relations between the two are still strained, not least because in the course of their fight with Judge, Jury and X-cutioner, Unicorn let Judge plunge to his death as revenge for his attempt to molest her. However, neither can deny the call of adventure and both have joined the Exiles.