I know it’s not really proper for me to smuggle you into the base like this, but I’m so excited that I couldn’t wait! As of today, December 14th 1939, I have been officially promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant! I know it’s barely a real promotion, and it was just so that I could be ‘officially’ in charge of a supply warehouse in the middle of Colorado while the real army gets ready for this ‘inevitable war’ in Europe, but none of that matters to me! As of today, neither of my little brothers can force me to salute them anymore, I officially outrank them both!
Oh drat, the little blinky light came on and that means the new ‘security camera’ is officially watching me now. Imagine diary, I’m on film now! Almost like at the cinemas! Good thing I know the guys stuck on security and they won’t write me up for something as little as writing in you while I’m on duty. It’s not like anyone’s actually going to COME to the warehouse this close to the holidays. I think everyone that’s actually allowed inside is already off with their families, or off in DC dealing with the politicians and more ‘war’ talk. I don’t even think I have keys to get further in than my little office here, and on paper I’m in charge of the whole place!
And the reasons they give for all this secrecy are SO stupid, diary. It’s the army, we really can just tell people it’s off-limits because; orders. Instead I had to listen to Lieutenant Jevries go on for almost three whole hours about how important THIS warehouse is because the military is storing technology here that was developed by… ‘ALTEREDS!’
As if anyone with more than half a brain in their head believes in something so silly. The idea that people could jus
Captain Lester Clayton frowned as he reached the abrupt end of the writing in the tiny, pink, diary on the desk in front of him. “No one’s touched anything?”
“Sir, no sir.” The unhesitating response from the MP standing behind the captain drew a questioning look from the grey haired officer. “Sir, the security station went live shortly before Staff Sergeant Lawson vanished. The event itself, and everything else that’s happened in the three hours since then, it’s all recorded, sir.”
Captain Clayton nodded, glancing up at the recently devised and newly installed contraption adorning the wall. “Move everything, carefully, out of the office, Corporal. Then lock it up and post a full guard on it.” Clayton was halfway to the exit when he was halted by the confused response from the MP.
The older man sighed. “Corporal, as far as I am aware this is the first time one of these events has ever been recorded. The eggheads are going to want to be all over this, and they are going to want to be informed IMMEDIATELY. Which part of my orders requires clarification?”
“Yes sir, um, why move the furniture out, sir?”
“Because, Corporal, if the Staff Sergeant makes it back in one piece, I intend to make sure she has PLENTY of room when she lands.”
Captain Clayton sighed as he noted the continued activity around Staff Sergeant Lawson’s office upon his return. “Is everything prepared to your liking, Dr Kimmel?”
“Captain! So glad you could make it back before the wondrous event. The preparations are mostly complete, but for some reason your man here,” a wave of one of the scientist’s long and gangly arms meant to indicate Corporal Fredriks nearly collided with the MP’s face, “keeps telling us that we can’t set up the large scanner inside the office.”
“With respect, Doctor, and for the fifth time; I am not going to allow you to occupy the majority of Sergeant Lawson’s potential landing area with two tons of equipment and generators.”
“But this could be the greatest opportunity we’ll have in YEARS, Captain. We could significantly advance mankind’s understanding of one of the greatest mysteries in history!”
“No means no, Doctor.” There was quite a bit more force in the grey-haired military man’s tone this time. “This is not the first, nor second, nor even the TENTH time that the US Military has had a chance to observe the Return following a Vanishing. The momentous occasion here was that the initial vanishing itself was caught on film.” Clayton pointed emphatically at the camera in question as he spoke, a device that had undergone several EXTREMELY careful upgrades over the last 70 hours to insure there would be no recording interruptions until after the Sergeant’s Return.
“Some of this equipment wasn’t available the last ti-…”
“But it will be available next time. Hopefully from a space more open than an eight by ten office in a concrete and steel building.” The Captain’s expression softened slightly. “I’ve seen a Return before, Dr Kimmel, and not all of them are pretty OR controlled. It’s already too small a space, I won’t permit it to be made any smaller.”
The gangly doctor sighed and ran his fingers through frizzy red, rapidly thinning, hair. “It seems I must accept that at this juncture, Captain, as I no longer have time to go over your head.”
Clayton smirked at the scientist’s back as the man went back to his preparations, an expression that was caught by the man’s female assistant and earned the officer an unexpectedly conspiratorial smile.
“He’s already tried to go over your head twice, Captain Clayton.” The whisper from the blonde woman caught the older military man by surprise, but not as much as her brief brace to attention and salute before she returned to work.
“I wasn’t aware your assistant was also military, Dr Kimmel.”
“Ah, my apologies Captain, so much to do with all these restrictions that I’ve forgotten basic courtesy.” The scientist paused and turned to face the Captain again. “Captain Lester Clayton, I’m pleased to introduce my assistant in this endeavor Nurse Deanne Ritely. Assigned in this case since my areas of expertise do not include medicine, and since you are correct that not all Returns are orderly occasions.”
“I rather hope my expertise isn’t needed, sir.”
“Nurse Ritely is also here to provide potential insights into the event, seeing as she’s been through it herself!”
Clayton turned a far more scrutinizing look on the young woman. “You’re Altered, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir. My Vanishing was ten years ago just after I turned 17. I don’t think I’ll be able to offer any insight though, seeing as how I don’t remember anything at ALL about the whole thing.”
The Captain found himself floundering a bit as he tried to find a polite way to ask his real question more directly, when the nurse turned and smiled at him again.
“I got the ability to sense emotions, if that’s what you’re curious about sir.”
“It makes her invaluable for this sort of thing, assuming our subject returns intact of course.”
Clayton found both himself and Nurse Ritely glaring at the scientist’s back in response to his casual statement. “Is there anything else you needed from me, Dr Kimmel?” The older man’s tone should have lowered the temperature in the room by several degrees, but the scientist didn’t seem to notice.
“Nothing that you seem rational enough to provide, Captain. The event itself won’t take place for at least another hour, if you had other work to attend in the interim.”
The Captain’s scowl settled a little more permanently onto his face at the offhand dismissal, but the older man turned to leave without further engaging the gangly scientist. Clayton hadn’t been joking about having witnessed Returns in the past, and there were several things that needed doing before this one happened.
Minimal welcoming committee is all set. Charges are wired and outer security perimeter is armed to the teeth in case this is one of the bad ones. Time enough left for a quick meal and an updated will.
Seventy minutes later, Captain Lester Clayton found himself shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot and tugging at imaginary tightnesses in his uniform. The combination of anticipation and nervousness coursing through his system reminded the military man far too much of how he’d felt as a much younger man the evening before his first combat mission. “Best estimate as to how much longer, Doctor?”
“Your guess is as good as mine at this point, Captain.” Clayton noted how Dr Kimmel was practically dancing about the equipment he’d set up, his voice giddy with excitement, and found his distaste for the man deepening a little further.
“The accepted window for a Return is anywhere between seventy hours, forty minutes all the way up to seventy-two hours, thirty minutes.” Nurse Ritely was far more composed than either of the older men in the room, moving with quick efficiency that seemed mostly dedicated to correcting minor incidents caused by her boss’s exuberant movements.
“I’ve got exactly seventy-one hours… now, sir.” Corporal Jake Fredriks seemed much better suited to the waiting game than the others in the room, the man being so still in his ‘at ease’ position nearer the warehouse door that the others started at the unexpected sound of him speaking.
“Thank you for the update, Corporal.” Clayton suppressed the urge to sigh again at the enlisted man’s presence. It was hardly the Corporal’s fault that a general order mandated the presence of at least one MP for all military Returns. I’d feel a whole lot less nervous if there’d been anyone left on base with ANY real experience to stand in that spot though.
Lester found himself staring at the clock after Corporal Fredriks’ announcement of the time, trying to will the seconds to tick by faster. His attention on the timepiece was so intent that he actually missed the sudden appearance of a petite brunette woman in military garb.
“Mark the time!” Kimmel’s triumphant shout snapped everyone’s attention to the arrival in the office, and set the confused looking woman back a step.
My God, she looks terrified. Clayton froze for a moment at the nearly feral look in the eyes of the Returned woman, and didn’t react quickly enough to the enthusiastic scientist rushing into the office.
“Welcome back Sergeant! I need you t-…” Dr Kimmel’s rapid approach and rapid-fire speech was cut off when the Sergeant’s gaze shifted to track his sudden movement, and the woman flinched. The slight shift caused the concrete floor underneath her to crack loudly, the walls to groan, and the scientist was flung out of the room by an unseeable force.
The older military man unfroze quickly as his peripheral vision showed him the next disaster looming. Corporal Fredriks has unsnapped his firearm and the weapon was halfway drawn when Lester laid the young enlisted man out with a blind side haymaker. He’d seen the look in the young woman’s eyes, and she looked just as confused and frightened after laying out the scientist as she had before. Don’t startle her, and maybe we can get through this in one piece.
“At ease, Staff Sergeant Lawson.” Captain Clayton turned from the man he’d just punched out and attempted to radiate command presence, and calm. She ripped right through both her shoes when she moved, and I think the seams on her jacket tore a little too. What the hell was that?
Sergeant Lawson remained in the position she’d adopted after flinching, a stance that reminded the Captain immediately of a street brawler. Still looks confused, a little less scared now though, that’s probably good. “I said at EASE, Sergeant.”
There was a long moment when the Captain was certain his attempt was going to backfire and get all of them killed. Then the tension almost visibly drained away from the petite woman in front of him and she shuffled into something resembling a proper military stance.
“Is… Is this… real?” Jessica Lawson sounded like she hadn’t spoken in weeks, the words tangling up in her tongue and her voice barely a hoarse whisper.
“You’re back in your office, Staff Sergeant. Vanishings are frequently a traumatic experience, so you’ll be excused for the initial lack of decorum and for being out of uniform.” Clayton’s words caused the young woman to look herself over, her gaze locking onto the remains of her footwear for a long moment before she spoke again.
“But… Vanishings aren’t real… They can’t be…”
“Sergeant Lawson, you are addressing a superior officer.” The Captain’s gaze swiveled quickly in surprise to the form of Nurse Ritely who seemed to have finished checking her superior and had apparently decided to join the conversation.
“Sorry… sir.” The older man felt he did a passable job of keeping the surprise off his face, he hadn’t expected the Sergeant to handle the sudden interruption so well.
“Now as for Vanishings not being real, I can personally attest otherwise, and now so can you. Now let’s get you over to the infirmary so I can check you out and we can get you a new uniform, it looks like you’ve put on a bit of muscle since that one was fitted.”
She reads emotions, THAT’S how she’s doing this. Clayton felt relief as the puzzle before him suddenly started to make sense again. The relief faded quickly when the blonde nurse entered the office only for Sergeant Lawson to flinch again and somehow… shift from her place in the middle of the room, into the corner. Did she move? I didn’t see her move.
“That’s a neat trick, Sergeant. Do you mind if I call you Jessica? I’ve read your file a few times while we’ve been waiting for you to come back.”
She’s not even fazed by it. Not even a little bit. Thank God she was assigned along with that overeager idiot on the floor.
“Does… does my family know what happened to me?”
Ritely flashed a quick look at the Captain, and Clayton recognized his cue to speak again. “Per standing orders, Vanished military personnel dependents or next of kin are not notified until after the personnel in question Returns.”
“But… they must have… what did you tell them? About what happened? They must have asked, sir…” Lawson shook her head as if to clear it, and looked like she was trying hard to fight back tears. “How long… how long was it, sir?”
“Just under three days, Jessica.” Nurse Ritely took up the thread of conversation again.
Unfortunately the answer did not seem to go over well with the recently Returned woman. “LIAR!” The shout was no louder than would have been expected of a petite woman, but the shattering concrete floor and walls around her added quite a bit of emphasis. “It was… years. YEARS!”
“SERGEANT LAWSON, ATTEN-SHUN!” Years of military experience gave Captain Clayton an excellent ‘command voice.’ While the Sergeant’s yell and subsequent structural damage had been loud, the older man’s shout was almost deafening in the enclosed space.
The combination of a command the Sergeant must have heard thousands of times coupled with the force the order was issued drove the petite woman to stand rigidly practically as a reflex.
“Lapses in decorum are allowed after a Vanishing only up to a point, Sergeant.” Captain Clayton stalked towards the enlisted woman as he spoke, knowing that at this point he was either saving them all or making the last mistake of his life. “But when a superior officer answers a question, YOU DO NOT SCREAM AND THROW A TANTRUM BECAUSE YOU DON’T LIKE THE ANSWER!”
Staff Sergeant Jessica Lawson continued to stand at perfectly rigid attention, though tears now ran freely from her eyes and she couldn’t breathe without sniffling.
“Now LIEUTENANT Ritely, answered your question honestly. Your Vanishing occurred a little more than seventy-one hours ago. However long you THINK it happened, that’s the lie. It’s in your head, Sergeant, and you need to set it aside RIGHT NOW.”
“Sir… yes, sir.” The words were a little difficult to understand as the woman seemed to be holding back sobbing cries, but she got them out, and no one was dead.
It’s a genuine miracle. “Now please accompany Nurse Ritely to the infirmary, and she will try to answer any further questions you have. Dismissed.” With that Clayton turned and walked to the slowly rising form of Corporal Davis.
“Corporal, I want to apologize for blindsiding you like that.” The older officer helped the younger enlisted man to his feet as he spoke, and held out the Corporal’s sidearm to reclaim as he did so.
When Davis reached to receive his weapon, he was pulled in VERY close to the Captain. “But so help me God, if I ever see you draw your weapon on a superior again it had better be under direct orders, or I will have you court martialed and EXECUTED. Now go get a medic and a gurney and make sure this idiot doesn’t manage to die somehow.” The Captain waved a hand in the direction of the still downed Dr Kimmel.
“Are you feeling better, Staff Sergeant?” Captain Clayton stood outside the young woman’s room, striving to appear as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened in the past few hours.
“Sir, I’m… confused, sir.” The brunette sat with her back to the corner of the small room, the bed in the middle appearing completely untouched. “Everyone says it’s only been three days, it’s even the right date and nothing looks too changed, but I remember…” The young woman ran her hands up and down a series of very intricate tattoos along both her upper arms as she spoke.
Where the hell did she get… No, wait, sometimes Altered do have notable physical differences. First time I’ve heard about tattoos appearing though. “You can watch the security feed if you want, Sergeant. It’s pretty boring since it’s mostly just your empty office for three days, but we recorded continuously since your Vanishing.”
“Back… I guess four days ago… I didn’t even believe Altered were REAL, sir.”
“Well, I expect you have sufficient evidence now to make a believer out of you shortly, Sergeant.” And a tattoo around her neck too, that looks like it would have HURT.
The room lapsed into silence for over a minute before the Captain spoke again. “So, a question you might as well get used to hearing Sergeant; do you know what your new abilities are?”
“I can…” The brunette began her answer but then trailed off and buried her face in her hands instead.
“Take your time, Sergeant.”
“The things I remember, sir. You said they aren’t real? It was really only three days?”
“The offer to watch the recording stands.”
“I… Wherever or whatever I remember, all of that, it was… fighting. Years and years of fighting… and killing. I think…” Lawson trailed off again as she lost the battle to fight back her tears.
Captain Clayton waited patiently for several long minutes before the young woman had regained a measure of composure, and finished her answer.
“I think I’m just a monster now, sir.”